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Tuesday, 1 June 2010
Page: 4873

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services) (6:47 PM) —The background to this budget, which the opposition would seek to forget or to deny, is the reality of the economic crisis the world has faced over the last two years, created of course by subprime lending, housing speculation, inflow of credit in the United States, exploitative lending, easy credit and the complexity of financial products. That was the environment internationally. That was the situation that had impacts on this country. That is what the opposition would like to pretend to the Australian electorate never occurred. That is what they would try to persuade people the government did not have to correct and act upon.

We can make various comparisons at various points in time during that period as to the unemployment situation. If we look at the point at which Australia’s unemployment rate was 5.8 per cent—and this figure has not been plucked deliberately; the same pattern can be found at many stages—in Spain it was 9.3 per cent, in the United States it was 10.2 per cent, in Ireland it was 12.8 per cent, in Germany it was 7.5 per cent and in France it was 10.1 per cent. That was what was happening internationally.

We can obviously say that a significant part of Australia’s success relates to the continued demand from China and, to a lesser extent, from India for raw materials. There is no denying that—though, equally, we would ask that the opposition, when they talk about the state in which they had left the Australian economy when Labor came to power, admit the key, fundamental contribution of raw materials sales in the period of the Howard government. That was the international environment that was impacting on this country. Even though China, through a major injection of capital in its own economy and through wider government measures, managed to limit the crisis and thereby help Australia, the fact is that we faced the threat of significant unemployment in this country.

My electorate would be particularly interested in this because, with the presence of a lot of brick kilns from the 19th century and the fact that it is on the western fringe of Sydney, there was massive land redevelopment in the 1950s, particularly housing commission constructions in Granville, Guildford, Wentworthville et cetera. For all of those reasons the building sector is especially crucial in my electorate and a few surrounding seats. It is also an electorate with a high presence of Lebanese Maronites, who essentially dominate the flat development sector in Sydney.

For those reasons, housing is crucial. Construction is important. What we saw was a significant effort by this government to make sure that those companies were kept afloat—that they could pay bills, keep employees on and continue to train people; that the building supplies sector would survive; and that companies such as Hardies and Australian Gypsum, and the paint industry, the timber sector, hardware et cetera could basically sustain their existence through that crisis. This is something that was renowned around the world. This is a policy position that has been commented upon favourably by international financial institutions. It has been commented upon by the US government. To say that all is not perfect in this budget is to basically try to ignore this reality.

We know that the member for North Sydney had a very unfortunate experience down at the National Press Club a week or two ago, but let us put that to one side. Let us look at his other comments. Last year we had histrionics from him in this parliament about the government’s predictions of what would occur in the Australian economic climate over the approaching year. He said that we were far too optimistic, that we were cooking the books and that the projections were not going to occur. Now that most of those predictions have eventuated in an even more positive fashion, he says this year that we were too pessimistic—we should not have had those projections last year.

This is the same person who goes on national television trying to put a major hurdle there—a major barrier, to his mind—that we could hit the surplus in three years. He said he would like the government to try and accomplish that, feeling that it would not happen. Now we find, in half the expected time, that has occurred. It will occur in three years. So the man who said it was so difficult, that it was beyond this government, now knows that in reality it has occurred. He should give credit where it is due, that this has been the reality.

An article in the Canberra Times of 27 May reported the OECD’s comments on the experience in this country. The article states that the OECD:

… was optimistic about Australia’s future, upgrading its forecasts for economic growth to 3.25 per cent this year and 3.6 per cent next year.

More importantly, as far as I am concerned, the OECD is reported as saying:

The unemployment rate is expected to fall below 5 per cent by the end of 2011, in a context of moderate inflation.

Managing the exit strategy from the crisis is less problematic in Australia than in most OECD countries. The current tightening of monetary and fiscal policy is welcome given the rebound in activity.

So there we have the OECD congratulating the government of this country—the Rudd Labor government—for actually weathering the storm, not by sitting on its backside, not by going for a holiday, but by acting in regard to construction.

In the electorate of Reid we have seen very worthwhile projects occurring as a result of this initiative. There is a school across the road from me at Granville East. I hear that the Deputy Prime Minister has not gone to some school in South Australia, that she did not make sure that a few trees were not chopped down, or that a building was a few metres out of line at Drummoyne et cetera. We know that there is a multitude of attempts by the opposition to come up with every problem in the construction scheme. Come election day, I have a distinct feeling that those people who will be more affected by this debate will not be the people who are going to listen to speculation about the overall mistakes in the system; they will be the people who have got kids in schools and they will be the parents who have seen what has been accomplished. I have had teachers—not Teachers Federation activists—and people in the school system who are not even on my side of politics say that it is the best thing that has happened in four decades in New South Wales. It is worth while for the kids in schools, it is worthwhile for education, and, as I say, it has been crucially important in regard to keeping the Australian economy going and keeping people employed.

Through this government’s measures I have also seen a number of significant projects coming into Reid. There was the massive reconstruction on South Street in Granville which has essentially rejuvenated that shopping centre. There was the upgrade of the Harris Park town centre and the construction of an off-road dual-use pathway in Granville. The funding for the Granville Youth and Recreation Centre is something which I am very proud of as a member of the local resident committee. It provides a lot of activities and is a meeting place for young people in particular. You see them to all hours of the night playing basketball, particularly the local African youth. That has been helped by this government.

Similarly, in Auburn there was a major refit of the former Auburn Bowling Club as a community centre and, once again, it involved widespread consultation with the people in the electorate. Similarly, a few railway stations away at Regents Park, we saw a major facility being introduced which is available to a large number of local organisations. From recollection, there are about 15 local groups that are going to have access to meeting rooms there. As I say, we are seeing very worthwhile initiatives that have the dual outcomes of keeping people employed and bringing in worthwhile ventures.

One thing I was very pleased with in this budget was the money going to community legal centres. Of course, the Macquarie Legal Centre is based in my region and the region of the member for Parramatta, Julie Owens. The Women’s Legal Centre is also based in our region. Although it is not connected with those two existing services, I also commend the very enthusiastic committee around Susai Benjamin which established the Toongabbie Legal Centre from scratch in the last two years. They are an up-and-coming organisation in our region. I am hopeful that the federal government will be extremely positive about their funding in future years and I hope that they are accepted into the state organisation of legal centres.

Whilst we have moved to counter this international phenomenon, it is not to say that there are not regions of our country which have a higher than average unemployment rate. I refer to a number of them in my region. The last available small district figures are, unfortunately, only those from the December quarter. They noted that, whilst Australia had a 5.3 per cent unemployment rate, Campbelltown’s two subregions had rates of 8.5 and 8.7 per cent. Holroyd, currently in my electorate of Reid, had a 9.5 per cent rate. The two Liverpool subdistricts were roughly at the national average. Parramatta south, which is basically Gilford and South Granville, had a 14.7 per cent rate and Auburn had a 12.4 per cent rate. That is related to a high NESB, newly arrived migrant population, but in parts of Werriwa it is related to the distance from the city and transport issues. The cross-city transport patterns of Sydney, under Labor or Liberal, have been a significant factor against employment for decades.

Whilst I am very proud of this government’s action in construction and in injecting money into the economy, it is also especially pleasing in the context of those figures about higher than average unemployment in Western Sydney that the government in this budget is taking initiatives in skills and training. We see the investment of $660 million in training, apprenticeships and adult literacy and numeracy to ensure that we have the skills we need for a growing economy. That consists of 39,000 additional training places in sectors facing high skill demands through a $200 million investment in a new critical skills investment fund, support for 22,500 new apprenticeship commencements and the offer to states and territories to provide a guaranteed entitlement to a training place for all Australians under the age of 25. There is better training for the 1.7 million people in vocational training and, importantly, there are numeracy, literacy and language courses for up to 140,000 Australians to improve their quality of life.

On that front, I was very impressed by the paper produced by the local employment coordinator for our region, because it mentions issues such as the numeracy problems in the region which includes Reid. It notes that in the 2006 census over 60 per cent of residents within a priority employment area had not undertaken any tertiary studies; that people are concentrated in part-time employment, working a large number of casual jobs to support their families; and that a large proportion of the students going to the University of Western Sydney are the first in their families to attend tertiary studies. On this last point, an Australian Industry Group survey of members who are employers in the region suggests that as much as 40 per cent of the manufacturing workforce has relatively low levels of literacy and numeracy.

So I am indeed pleased that the government is still acting in regard to apprenticeships, employment and retraining. The budget as a whole provided $53½ million for the National Entitlement to a Quality Training Place program. Thereby, all Australians under 25 will have guaranteed access to a course to gain a qualification or increase their skills. This is of great importance. I note that the member for Werriwa has also been extremely interested in this, because his electorate and mine are affected by similar issues. We note that this will assist 364,000 young people who lack year 12 or certificate II qualifications. So there is action there to make sure that people are trained. People are getting numeracy skills.

I also note comments by the Deputy Prime Minister on another front in regard to measures that are being speculated upon and pushed by the opposition. I note the article in the Australian Financial Review of 27 May which talks about a KPMG Econtech study suggesting that the current government’s policy to create half a million jobs a year and boost annual growth to $100 billion by 2040 would occur because of measures such as the devotion of funds to school based trade training centres. We know that one of the announcements of the opposition has been that they would scrap them—they would abolish them. They would ignore that independent survey by KPMG Econtech, which says that there is great value in this. The Deputy Prime Minister went on to release a list of school based training centres by electorate, saying that 181 schools, several of which are in marginal coalition seats, would be denied a trade training centre under a coalition government.

On another front, she was equally correct in her point about the threat to 21st century education in this country from the coalition proposal to essentially scrap the computers in schools process. We know that under this government over 30 per cent of machines have made it into students’ hands already, with about 260,000 delivered, as the Australian reported on 25 May. The article commented:

Cutting the program, should the Coalition win the next federal election, would create serious inequity among high-school students.

That is, between those that have had them delivered and those that will not receive them. Of course, the situation is that we are facing a very serious deterioration of availability of those computers to people, particularly in more socially and economically deprived areas, if the coalition get away with abolishing this system.

Talking more broadly, we have the budget proposal that small businesses will have a tax reduction from 30 to 28 per cent, in advance of the rest of the corporate sector. We have the instant write-off for assets under $5,000; a 50 per cent tax discount for the first $1,000 of interest deposits, whether in banks, credit unions or building societies; and the introduction of a standard tax deduction scheme to make it more simple for the average taxpayer. Most importantly, there is a significant improvement in superannuation earnings in the long term for Australians, with estimates that a 30-year-old will gain an extra $100,000 by this change. These measures, of course, cannot be funded unless there is the successful introduction of the proposed resources tax.

It is 30 years since the courts in this country decided that offshore property belonged to the Commonwealth and not to the states. That court case is a reminder to us that these materials belong to the Australian people, the Australian taxpayers. It is also a reminder to us that these mining companies will exploit the most available resources in the first period. Those that are less available will be looked at later. We are now in the most productive and profitable time for some of these mines. The time is now for the Australian people to claim a reasonable return with regard to the extraction of this resource that is owned by them.

I want, finally, to turn to the question of health. It is worth noting another initiative by the opposition—the abolition of e-health. It was very interesting to note on 25 May the response of the Minister for Health and Ageing in the House noting that the current Leader of the Opposition as far back as 2003 made the monumentally heroic comment that it would be an indictment against everyone in the health system, including the then existing coalition government, if e-health systems were not introduced in this country. Back in 2007, he thought it would be an indictment if it were not accomplished; now he seeks to abolish it. In the interim, the then health minister made a comment in August 2007:

… my first scripted speech—

I do not know if ‘scripted’ is actually gospel or whether it falls in the middle—

as Health Minister concerned e-health. I stated that an electronic health record, communicated electronically among health care providers, would mean safer, better, more convenient and more efficient health care.

He noted that it was fundamentally important. He said it would be an indictment if it did not happen under his watch. It has not happened. It did not matter, again, that his replacement from the opposition in that portfolio had given the government a commitment that he was in accord and on board to promote the same program. The replacement initially said that it was a very poor reflection on the previous decade—and that included Mr Abbott’s reign—that it had not been accomplished then. Now we see it being abolished despite the fact that it is estimated that two per cent to three per cent of hospital admissions in Australia are linked to medication errors, equating to 190,000 admissions each year, as the minister noted, and costing the Australian taxpayer—when people are so worried about them—in the area of $660 million a year. I commend the budget both on the national front and in regard to what has been accomplished in the electorate of Reid.