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Tuesday, 24 May 2011
Page: 4372

Ms OWENS (Parramatta) (18:52): Before I commence my speech on the appropriation bills, I would like to inform the member for Canning that the proposed cut to the feed-in tariff is actually a proposal by the O'Farrell state government, not this government. There are many people in my electorate who also do not want to see a cut. He might like to join the chorus in New South Wales asking for it to be retained.

This is a good budget from my perspective. It delivers on jobs, with another 500,000 new jobs by 2013 and a reduction in national unemployment to 4.5 per cent, and that is on top of the 750,000 jobs created since Labor first won government in 2007. It delivers on much needed skills in our growing economy, with 130,000 more training places, mentoring for 10,000 apprentices to help them finish their training and $101 million to accelerate apprenticeships for workers with existing skills.

This budget delivers on mental health. There are many, many people in my electorate who have already contacted my office congratulating the government for acting on what is to them a very important area. The budget delivers $2.2 billion over five years, including funding for 30 new headspace centres, bringing the national total to 90. One of those headspace centres will be in Parramatta and it will open later this year. The budget provides up to 12 additional youth psychosis sites, 40 more family support services, 425 more personal helpers and mentors, $344 million for new support services for the severely mentally ill and a National Mental Health Commission. It also delivers one-stop shops for people with mental illness. My electorate of Parramatta has a rather large population that suffers from mental illness, perhaps because of the history of the area, its location next to the Cumberland Hospital and its character as a CBD which attracts a large number of people who are homeless. So we, as much as perhaps any other area in the country, would certainly welcome one of those one-stop shops in our community. This budget also delivers for families, with family tax benefit A increasing by up to $4,200 a year for families whose teenage children stay at school, an effective tax cut for single parents and new approaches to help teenage mums finish school and give their kids the best start.

But you cannot just judge a budget on what it delivers. Budgets are very much about the times in which they are crafted. They show a government's response to the circumstances of the time and they carry within them the priorities of a government. Since coming to government in 2007 we have delivered four budgets, and I think it is fair to say that the last three have been crafted in very interesting times indeed. Each of them have been well and truly budgets for their time. They have introduced spending when it has been necessary to compensate for a contraction in the private sector. They have cut when it has been necessary for a government to pull back and make space for the private sector to grow. There are those, particularly in the opposition, who question whether that is the appropriate strategy and who question whether we should spend when the private sector contracts, but the proof is well and truly in the outcome over the last three years and well and truly demonstrated in these budget figures.

In spite of the global financial crisis and then the Victorian bushfires, the Queensland floods, Cyclone Yasi, the Japanese and New Zealand earthquakes and now, in a different way, the high dollar, the economy is in exceptionally good shape and it is an economic performance that most economies in the world would love to have. In fact, I know from talking to a number of my colleagues overseas that they look at us with some level of wonder. We have created 700,000 new jobs through that time, while 30 million jobs were lost around the world. We have an unemployment rate with a four in front of it when most comparative economies around the world sit higher than 8 per cent. We are one of only three advanced economies that did not go into recession and we have a debt that is very small relative to other advanced economies. We are well and truly on track for a return to surplus. We will bring this budget back to the black by 2012-13. The majority position of most economic commentators is that essentially that is the right thing to do. There is some discussion about whether it can be a year later, but essentially it is seen as the right thing to do. Even though it is quite difficult in the circumstances to achieve that, we will be bringing it back into the black by 2012-13.

There are of course arguments against that. One argument in particular that comes from the opposition is that we should not have spent in the first place. To that I say this: the stimulus package in my electorate—the Building the Education Revolution program and the public housing build—created jobs that accounted for three per cent of my workforce. My community has a very large construction sector, which was essentially flat. Even now the part of the construction sector that is not working on Building the Education Revolution projects is down to three-day weeks. We created enough jobs to add three per cent to the workforce during the two years of the Building the Education Revolution program. I do not know what those people would have been doing if they had not been working on Building the Education Revolution projects, but I am told that the likelihood is that they would have been unemployed. We would have seen contractors selling their trucks and spending substantial periods of time out of the workforce. As far as I am concerned, that is what you would call waste and mismanagement. If you were to add another three per cent to unemployment to an area like mine, it would see carnage, really. It is not to be imagined. Instead we stepped in as a government, we filled a vacuum, we spent when it was necessary to do so and we left behind a legacy in our school halls, in upgrades to our schools and in improvements to public housing, including some wonderful new public housing developments in my electorate. We did a good thing by keeping people employed and we left a legacy.

There are others who say that we do not need to pay down the debt quite so quickly. There are others who say that we do not need to return the budget to black by 2012-13. To them I say this from my heart: for a government that has already seen a global financial crisis and several catastrophes in a row, I am not sure that I trust that there will not be another one. So, for me, one of the reasons is that governments have an obligation to put themselves in the strongest position they can to safeguard the economy and the community in the future. But we also need to pull back to provide space for the mining boom and the rebuilding in Queensland. The incredible expansion that we are expecting with both activities—the building that will go on in the mining boom and the rebuilding in Queensland—will take a great deal of capacity, and we need to pull back as a government to provide space for that. Coming back to surplus by 2012-13 is absolutely the right thing to do and we are well on track to do that.

There have been many challenges that we have had to respond to, and we have. As a government, we can be proud of that. Without the heat of the political argument, I think that people will look back and give the government the credit that is due for shepherding the country through what have been incredibly difficult and volatile times around the world. But, underneath that, in the budget you can also see the character of the government and the priorities that it has. They show not so much in the headline announcements as in the consistent work that you can see done over several budgets and reflected again in the priorities in this budget. I am going to talk about one that is dear to my heart, and that is education.

When I first became the candidate in Parramatta, back in 2004, I was really quite appalled—and that is not too strong a word—to discover that the enrolment rate in universities in Western Sydney was 3.2 per cent, compared to five per cent Sydney wide. So it was significantly lower, at slightly over half the Sydney-wide rate. Over the 12 years of the Howard government, the gap between Western Sydney and the whole of Sydney had widened; it had not shrunk. In spite of 12 years of serious boom, the kind of time when you can actually make a difference to the most disadvantaged communities, the gap had widened and the enrolment numbers for people from disadvantaged communities had fallen, not risen. This, for me, was quite appalling.

I spoke to a number of colleagues, including one from the other side who said to me, ' Perhaps they're all going and getting jobs in the mines.' That might have been true, but I still cannot understand why the people from Western Sydney should get jobs with the mines as cooks, cleaners and small vehicle drivers, while others get jobs as engineers and heavy vehicle mechanics. That gap is unacceptable. No government that is worth anything should accept that kind of gap between Western Sydney and the rest of Sydney or any other area of Australia.

Equality of opportunity is something that Australians pride themselves on, and it was not being demonstrated. We really had to do something about that, and we have started doing something. For a start, the Bradley review back in 2008 talked about enrolments generally being in the doldrums. In 1996, 16 per cent of Australians aged 25 to 34 were university graduates; by 2006, this had risen to 29 per cent. But that still had caused Australia to move down in the ranking of OECD nations. We were down to ninth, because other countries, including New Zealand, had improved and we had not improved as quickly. The government then set a target of having 40 per cent of our population with a university education by 2025. That would put us back at the high end—but still not at the top—of the OECD. That is a big ask and a big challenge in such a small period of time. But to extend the prosperity and the growth of Australia beyond the mining boom and in areas other than the mining boom requires us to substantially improve our skill base and our education base within our population. This is a very, very serious part of it.

The investment in education has been increased substantially. The most recent analysis shows that the Commonwealth expenditure on higher education through funding for teaching, learning and research is projected to increase to $13 billion in 2012. That is up $5 billion from $8 billion in 2007 and is over $3 billion more than the projection to 2012 of the coalition's funding trend. That is a substantial increase in funding. If you remember back to 2004, one of the things that members of the opposition, as we were at the time, kept saying over and over in this place was that, at that time, the Australian government's expenditure on education was actually going backwards relative to GDP. That was a significant failing of the last government and one that absolutely had to be turned around.

For the last couple of years we have been supporting programs that assist universities to attract and retain people from disadvantaged areas. This is particularly important in the University of Western Sydney, in my electorate. They have been working for quite a few years on this, but the additional investment has made a great deal of difference, and they have been getting out there and turning those numbers around. Last year nationwide we saw enrolments from disadvantaged students rise by eight per cent. That is a great achievement and one that we should be proud of, but it is just the beginning. If we achieve that 40 per cent by 2025, we need to be sure that that 40 per cent comes from the full range of Australian society—from regional Australia, from disadvantaged areas, from the general community and from people who arrived here as children speaking English as a second language. We need to make sure that that 40 per cent draws from the broadest possible range of Australians. It is an important goal.

Next year in this budget the government will provide $177.6 million in equity funding to assist universities to continue to attract, support and retain students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There was a program under the former coalition government that was worth $11 million. This is a commitment of $177 million for next year. As a consequence of this investment, more Australians, regardless of their background or where they live, will have the opportunity to gain a university education, and we will have more students in Parramatta graduating, with the parents proudly yelling out and behaving in a particularly Western Sydney way because their children are the first generation in their family to get a university education. I am particularly proud of this. I am particularly proud that it has been a strategy of the government for several years, and we see it yet again as a quiet achiever sitting in the pages of this budget. I am really proud to be part of a government that puts this as such a high priority.