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Thursday, 24 May 2012
Page: 5590


Ms BIRD (CunninghamParliamentary Secretary for Higher Education and Skills) (10:18): It is a great pleasure to speak to the budget that was presented by the Treasurer this year, and to follow the member for Kennedy in this debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2012-13 and cognate bills. Much of what he has contributed I would not agree with, but some of it I do. I think that in talking about the significance of the mining industry in this country he has touched on two very important areas that as a government we have been pursuing since we were first elected. They are: the development of the skills of the people of this nation to ensure they get access to the jobs of the future—exactly the issues he was addressing there—and also that we redirect some of the wealth into infrastructure across this nation to ensure that as a nation we are well positioned to make the best opportunities of the future, and where we sit in particular in the Asian century.

So while I may not always agree with the member for Kennedy's description of history or his prescription for the solving of the problems, I think that we can start with the base of an agreement about what the problems are and to acknowledge that they are certainly priorities for this government, and have been. Indeed, they were priorities for people representing the peak industry associations when I was first elected in 2004, when there were constant reports about backlogs and blockages in our system as a result of a shortage of skills and a shortage of infrastructure. They are two very important issues that the member for Kennedy touched on in his contribution.

This budget, I would argue very much, is a budget in the great tradition of Labor budgets and reflects the values that we seek to represent in this place. I say that for two reasons. Firstly, we do have a great tradition of building the skills and infrastructure of the nation. The Labor government has at the federal level a long history of building road, rail and transport infrastructure and ports and shipping. Indeed, at the moment the minister for transport is undertaking a mammoth task to rebuild the shipping industry of this nation, which has been let wither on the vine so badly for so long. We have a great tradition of putting in place the transport infrastructure on land that is needed to move the goods and services of our nation around what is, at the end of the day, one of our biggest challenges—the tyranny of distance not only internationally in terms of where we sit from major markets but also internally in connecting our cities and regions across the nation.

This has been really importantly reflected in this budget by the fact that we seek to introduce a new form of profits based tax on the mining industry in order to be able to redirect what is the wealth of this nation. I take the member for Kennedy's point and note that he has some concerns about who owns the companies. But, at the end of the day, the wealth of the nation is owned by the nation. It is owned by the people of this country, and we should ensure that we leverage that to get maximum benefit for diversifying our economies and supporting the sections of industry and the country, in terms of regions, that need to be able to be supported to take advantage of the boom and, indeed, supporting the regions that are experiencing the boom to manage that in an effective way—which I think many members here would, I think, reflect. That is exactly what a large part of the task of this budget is directly aimed at.

In my own region of the Illawarra, clearly we see both of those phenomena happening in one place. We have a very vibrant and strong mining industry. Coming from five generations of coalminers, I am most conscious of the reality of that industry in my region—and it is continues to flourish. I was talking to some of my uncles on the weekend, one of whom said that the biggest job he has had was writing CVs in the 1980s when he was retrenched 12 times when the mining industry was at the other end of the cycle. So we are very conscious in our region of the importance of the mining industry. But we are also a base for manufacturing. People would be aware of the BlueScope restructure last year and the significant flow-ons from that. So we do see both speeds and both challenges.

We are also a region with a major university, and we have seen growth. For example, our university produces the largest number of IT graduates in the nation. We have seen growth in aged care, in a much more professional, developed aged-care sector providing services of a much greater variety to people with different demands as they age in the modern age. We have seen a growth in our service sectors as well. So we reflect that diversity and those various speeds in the economy.

Part of that first part of the task of the budget that I referred to is about delivering on those infrastructure transport links and freight support that we have talked about. I am also very pleased that the budget gave a very strong injection and support to the development of skills in this nation and a continued support for our TAFEs, universities and private providers in this sector to continue to provide the opportunity for people to get the education that they need in order to be able to take advantage of the future.

We are very aware that if somebody leaves high school in this day and age—let alone in the future—without a further tertiary qualification, whether that is a certificate, a diploma or a degree, they are going to significantly struggle to hold a job in the modern economy. That is not something that we should be accepting in any way, shape or form.

Part of my new role as the parliamentary secretary in this area is to look at how we ensure that adults have the language, literacy and numeracy skills to be able to access those educational opportunities I am very pleased to be able to be undertaking that task, because I think it is very important. Indeed, members may have heard some of the stories of people in their own communities who grew up illiterate as adults and have had the opportunity through various governments over time to gain literacy skills. What a difference it makes to not only their own lives but also their kids. If your parents are literate and able to support you in your schooling, you are going to do much better at school. I think those commitments in the budget around education skills are also particularly important.

The other side of it is the micro side: it is what we are attempting to do to support individuals and to support families in order to manage the cost-of-living issues. In my own area of Cunningham I want to acknowledge that, in particular, the additional money—the schoolkids money—is going to be very important. I have talked to lots of local families who are very pleased with this particular initiative. My own sons are adults now, but I have had a lifetime of understanding the challenges, as many of us in this place with children have, of the costs to commence schooling, whether it is uniforms or equipment and so forth. There are just over 7,000 families in my electorate who are going to be eligible for that bonus—that is $410 a year for each child in primary school and $820 for each child in high school. It will be very welcome.

There are about 8,000 families in my electorate who will get the increase of up to $600 in family tax benefit A from 1 July next year—another important initiative to support families. Just over 9½ thousand young people, single parents and unemployed people in my electorate will receive the supplementary allowance. This is designed to help them meet the cost of utilities. The singles will receive $210 and couples $350. I think it is important to acknowledge that sometimes people hear the big stories and think: 'You're just talking about families.' That is not the case; we are also seeking to support young people, single parents and the unemployed with that sort of allowance.

There will be, very importantly, about 47,000 workers in my electorate who will receive a tax cut from 1 July this year. When you add that to the history of tax cuts that we have put in place since coming to government, it is a very important addition to give people more of their own income in order to meet their costs of living. About 4,000 workers in my electorate will no longer pay tax due to the increase in the tax-free threshold. So it is a great incentive to say to low-income workers, 'Get back in the workforce and engage with the workforce, even if it is getting a casual or part-time job, because you can earn up to about $18,000 now before you will even have to put a tax return in. You won't have to pay tax.' It is an enormous initiative. In my area it will be very welcome for 4,000 workers and I am sure it will be welcome in many other members' areas where there are significant issues around unemployment, particularly if that unemployment is connected to people who are disengaged from the workforce, such as disadvantaged young people, single parents or mature workers who have been out of the workforce for a long time. We know that that first step in the door, whether it is a part-time or casual job, can be the turning point to getting someone re-engaged with the workforce. To be able to say to those people, 'You can earn up to $18,000 without paying tax,' is a huge incentive. I am really pleased with that initiative in the budget.

There will also be nearly 23,000 workers in my area who earn up to $37,000 who will receive up to $500 towards their superannuation accounts—again, another great Labor tradition building on superannuation in this country. One of the GFC realities was that one of the strengths of our economy was our investment of over $1 trillion dollar in superannuation and the solid savings base that gives to this nation, so it is good to see that also supported in this budget. About 45½ thousand workers will get increased superannuation benefits when we move from nine to 12 per cent. As we all seek to have a retirement that is long and of quality, we will increasingly appreciate the importance of that increase to superannuation. Just over 15,000 small businesses will be eligible for the instant tax write-off for each asset worth up to $6,500. I think it is really important I make the point to my own local businesses: that is not one a year; that is up to $6,500 on every asset that they purchase, including up to $5,000 on a new vehicle, if that is part of their business requirement. When we initially introduced this as part of the stimulus response to the GFC, local small businesses in my area got a double bang because they bought from each other. It was not just the purchasing business that got the benefit of an instant asset write-off; they were likely to buy their car or their new computer or new piece of equipment from another local business, so that business got the benefit as well. I would argue it is a really good incentive. Some of my local businesses talk to me about the fact that we could not get the one per cent decrease in tax through for them because, sadly, those on the other side opposed it. But they were very supportive of this initiative, which provides the capacity for them to write off these assets and also supports other local businesses. At a more local level, the budget contains just over $1 million towards local roads for the Wollongong City Council, and I know they very much welcome that investment.

There is a commitment in this budget of $25.5 million towards the next stage of the Maldon-Dombarton rail link, something I have been campaigning for since I was first elected. Some members here might have an understanding of it. It was actually half built by the state government. When Mr Greiner was elected as Premier he stopped it. It was in the mid-eighties, when the coal industry took a dive. In a sadly short-sighted way, it was seen as not worth proceeding with. There are magnificent visions of a fly-over bridge across the gorges, but it just stops half-way. It is half built and has sat like that for nearly 30 years now.

The port of Port Kembla has become a critically significant port for the eastern seaboard of New South Wales. There is real capacity at Port Kembla to utilise it in a greater way and to create more local jobs, but we need that rail link completed. The Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Minister Albanese, has very much supported us on that project. When the Prime Minister came to the area to respond to the BlueScope announcement, she announced that we would commit to taking that project to the next stage and to get all the engineering and environmental work done. I will continue to lobby to get it included on the next round of nation-building infrastructure priorities. It is not a small task but it is a strategically very important and significant task.

All round, this is a great Labor budget, doing all the things that the nation needs to do. I absolutely commend these bills to the House.