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Tuesday, 25 June 2013
Page: 6952

Ms BIRD (CunninghamMinister for Higher Education and Skills) (16:03): It was an interesting story of doom and gloom by the member for Wide Bay. I am pleased that he managed to just fit in his little spiel at the end on the current theme of the opposition. The claim that they are going to deliver for the Australian population has an interesting disconnect between the claim and the reality. That is not an uncommon circumstance in terms of the arguments put forward. I am going to try to encapsulate what was a stab in the dark by the member across a number of portfolio and policy areas, and to address it and respond from the government's perspective.

The member seemed to be progressing an argument that there was a significant problem with the Australian economy. This is a key area in which the member, in his contribution, made a lot of doom-and-gloom claims—a bit of a nightmare bedtime story for people but, I suggest, very little connected to the facts of the situation. Just for his information I indicate that the facts of the economy are quite contrary to the doom and gloom that he outlined, in particular in his story on employment. For the member's interest, since this government came to power there have been over 960,000 jobs created within the context of an international situation that has put a lot of pressure on advanced economies, including ours, and a situation where most advanced economies would be giving their eye teeth to have the outcomes that we have achieved in this nation.

I know that this does not fit the doom-and-gloom story; I understand the political dynamic that is going on on the other side; I understand the standard procedure that rolls out from coalition oppositions—we have seen it in state governments up and down the east coast. In opposition you have to create a sense of crisis. You have to get an argument up that things are terribly difficult, that we are faced with a position that will require, when they come to government, some serious intervention. This then lays the groundwork for some form of audit or review of the circumstance. My colleague would know this very well in Queensland, where the former Treasurer Mr Costello came in and did an audit for the state government. It lays the foundation for an audit, and then they will wring their hands and say, 'It's so terrible, we're going to have to cut to the bone across a whole range of services and, in fact, walk away from a lot of the very investments that this nation will need to create a future of growth and opportunity for the populations of all of our communities.'

In particular I would point out that the member for Wide Bay in his contribution expressed a great deal of concern about jobs and a great deal of concern about families and providing some security for them. However, as some of my colleagues noted in the previous debate when we were talking about the potential to suspend the procedures of this House, the member for Wide Bay indicated that a lot of this problem came down to wages and conditions and things like penalty rates. We well know what this debate means; in fact, it is not even code these days. We are again hearing from those opposite an engagement in a conversation that makes it quite clear what the future for families across this nation will be under a coalition government, and that will be a revisiting of all of those interventions under industrial relations that caused such distress and rejection in the broader community that saw Work Choices profoundly rejected at the 2009 election. Indeed, it led to the current Leader of the Opposition, and other leaders of the opposition that have progressed through this place since that time, saying that the thing was 'dead and buried' and saying, 'We are not going anywhere near it anymore.' Yet suddenly the ghost of Work Choices starts to filter through the contributions in this place. So I think families know very well what the reality will be under those opposite.

The MPI talks about the cost of living for families. It is the case that the most profoundly important contributor to sustainability for families is a job. That is absolutely true. It has been the permanent and ongoing focus of this government to support access to jobs for people, particularly during the time when the international economy went through the global financial crisis. It has not only been our focus; it has been an achievement. As I said at the beginning of my contribution, over 960,000 jobs were created in that period, despite those serious international headwinds for our economy. I know this only too well, as do many of my colleagues, having come from an economy that is in transition and that has a manufacturing, mining and service industry base. We live it every day and we absolutely know it.

But I also know that the reality is that businesses across our communities benefitted from the interventions by this government and the stimuluses that we put in place. There was the immediate short-term stimulus of the cash injection which kept people spending over the Christmas period during the initial impact of the GFC and helped keep open those businesses that the member for Wide Bay talked about—all those small businesses in retail, hospitality and tourism who are, as we know, run on a cyclical yearly income and need that expenditure over the Christmas-New Year period to make their books balance for the year. That initial, short-term cash injection in response to the global financial crisis actually kept open a lot of doors of small businesses over that period of time. I remember those opposite rubbishing it and saying how outrageous it was that people were buying TV sets—and now we are worried that the very small businesses that sell the TV sets might be in trouble. It was a really significant and important intervention to support jobs and to support small businesses.

Of course, off the back of that, there was the more medium-term intervention in terms of the building and construction programs that occurred. As many of us know, the Building the Education Revolution provided facilities that are greatly valued by schools. If you want to talk about cost of living, try being a family buying raffle tickets all the time because the school needs a new hall—and then there is the lamington drive, the chocolate drive and the raffle—as school families try to raise the funds that they need for those facilities. I can assure you that they were profoundly grateful for that injection.

Also, as a result of that building program there were a lot of small and medium building and construction companies in my electorate—and I am sure they were in everybody else's electorate—that got work through that period. I met companies in my area working on BERs who said to me, 'We were within weeks of laying off staff.' That was the reality—and they were not only keeping their staff but also putting on apprentices. One of the really important outcomes—if you want to talk about jobs and security for families—out of the global financial crisis was the fact that apprenticeship commencements were sustained through the global financial crisis at their pre-crisis levels. That is an unprecedented outcome for an economic downturn.

I live in the Illawarra and I well remember the downturn that occurred in the late eighties and early nineties. One of the first things that paid the cost was apprenticeships. During that downturn, there was a massive drop-off in the recruitment of apprentices and the opportunity for young people to get a start in life to get a good quality job for the long-term future and to raise a family off the back of that. The outcome of that, of course, was that as we went through the cycle and the upswing occurred, we had significant skill shortages across this country. The intervention by this government, particularly through the Apprentice Kickstart program, meant that those companies not only had work to do through that period but also had the capacity and support to employ the next generation of young tradespeople on those job sites. It was significantly important, and we will be for the next generation very grateful that we had those skills in place and rolling out across our communities.

Job security and access to jobs are important, and we have been all about that the whole time that we have been in government. I will not go through the extensive interventions that we have made in the education system more broadly to ensure that the jobs that are emerging, the jobs of the future—which of course will require much higher levels of qualifications and skills—are going to be available to the Australian population because we have upped the standards of our preschool teaching, we have upped the standards of our schools, we have upped the standards of our vocational providers and our universities and we have injected into them in significant ways and created new training opportunities.

On top of having access to a job, you also want fair remuneration for your work and reasonable working conditions that make it possible to actually engage with and have a family life as well as financially support your family. The interventions that we have made in getting rid of Work Choices and putting the Fair Work Bill into place and supporting things like the accumulation of superannuation—an historic Labor reform that we are now expanding—and making sure that there is fair pay for all workers have been significant. In particular, for me, the fair pay case that enabled community service workers—many of whom are women—to get some pay equity was a significant outcome. I sat on the House's committee chaired by Sharryn Jackson, a former member, that did the pay equity report. I indicate that it was a bipartisan report.

Mr Neumann interjecting

Ms BIRD: That is right—the member was also on the committee. It was a bipartisan report. It acknowledged that there had been an inherent, entrenched discrimination against what was generally termed 'women's work', although there are a lot of really fine men working in the field, of course, too. But it had become an entrenched equity issue in terms of pay and remuneration. As a result of the government's reform, action was able to be taken on that front.

So there have been a number of initiatives over a number of areas by this government to ensure fair remuneration and decent working conditions are in place for Australian families—and they value that very much. That was reflected, I would suggest to those opposite, in the 2007 election. So it is very interesting to see the emergence again on that side of some of those Work Choices type campaigns, particularly, as the member for Wide Bay said, around penalty rates and conditions. So we put the facts on the table.

The other area I want to identify some facts around was the member's contribution on the National Broadband Network. It is astonishing. I think there will be a lot of people sitting on that side of the House who, when their grandchildren say, 'What did you do in parliament? Can I have a look at some of your contributions?', will be directing them to everything but their contribution on the NBN. It is going to be one of those spaces where, as the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport showed today, in another generation they will be reading into the new Hansard the contributions of those opposite in the current Hansard around the NBN and having a good old chuckle about it, because it will seem inconceivable that people who said they had a focus on the future could have made the contributions that they made.

I actually feel a real twinge of sympathy for those on the other side who I know actually get this and actually do understand why it is such significant nation-building infrastructure and would no doubt like to break out of the shackles of the Leader of the Opposition, who will struggle I think to comprehend why that is such a significant future investment for this nation. They would really like to break out of those shackles and say, 'Look, can we just support the government? They are on the right track here.' This is significant and it will make a huge difference, particularly in rural and regional areas, where you know as well as I know that the rollout of telecommunications infrastructure is never as good as what they get in the city. How you could not be getting right behind a platform that rolls out broadband across this nation and provides equity at that access level for the infrastructure? I really don't understand. It is going to be the technology that will create connections across the nation, that will give equity to people wherever they live in accessing services, and that will provide the backbone of a whole lot of new business activity—new small businesses that the member for Wide Bay said he was so concerned about. The reality is that that program is the program of the future, and it is the one that delivers to rural and regional areas. The reality for families under the coalition's policy is that it will come to the end of their street and if they have got $5,000-odd they will be able to connect it to their house. I just think that is an appalling position to be in.

So across all the policy areas that the member for Wide Bay made a contribution about, it is quite clear that they are still living in the past. They want to revisit pre-2007—they want to go back to an outdated NBN program, they want to go back to a rejected industrial relations policy, they want to go back to a world before the GFC and pretend it never happened. Fairy tales do not happen in reality. This government deals with the facts. We deliver the policies that address the future and we will continue to do that in the interests of families.