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Thursday, 26 May 2011
Page: 4903

Mr MURPHY (Reid) (10:49): I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2011-2012 and related budget bills. There is no doubt that Australia has an economy in a position envied by many in the developed world. Our national debt is among the lowest in the world at 7.2 per cent of GDP, 10 times less than the United States of America at 72 per cent; our unemployment level is nearly half that of other major industrial countries at 4.9 per cent, compared with 9.6 per cent in France and nine per cent in the United States of America; our official interest rates are still two percentage points lower than when the coalition lost office; and our terms of trade are the best in 140 years. On top of this, the Labor government has created 700,000 jobs since 2007, during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and we are aiming to create another 500,000 jobs.

These comparatively good economic statistics were not brought about by chance but rather by good governance and good decisions. There is no doubt that Australia dealt with the global financial crisis better than most. None of these outcomes would have been possible without the two stimulus packages that kept Australians in jobs. Although there are many Australians feeling the cost-of-living pressures, including in my electorate of Reid, it would have been much worse if the Labor government had not acted as swiftly and decisively as we did and the opposition had had their way, which was to cut millions of jobs.

Our government responded swiftly and appropriately when confronting the global financial crisis. That helped our country weather the storm. The 2011-12 budget is about keeping the economy healthy. We must not rest on our laurels. We must continue to strengthen our economy and create new opportunities. That is why this budget will get us back in the black by 2012-13 and spread the opportunities of the mining boom. As with all good governments, we must consider the context of our fiscal position and plan for an even better future, noting all of the obstacles and constraints. For the Gillard government, the expected tax collection over the last two years has been cut by $16 billion, as a result of historic national natural disasters, the GFC and the high Australian dollar. However, this will not prevent the government from making important investment in vital areas such as training, education and health.

The Chief Executive Officer of Australian Industry Group, Ms Heather Ridout, stated:

This year's Federal Budget is solid on the fundamentals of skills, infrastructure and fiscal responsibility. These investments will ease capacity constraints in these tight economic times.

Further, Ms Ridout noted on the establishment of a National Workforce and Productivity Agency:

All up, this substantial package, which delivers a significant new investment over a sustained period, will stand Australia in good stead in the years ahead. Ai Group argued hard for this, and we are delighted to see the proposals included in the Budget.

The National Workforce and Productivity Agency will work with industry to identify critical skills needs and develop workforce plans and issues. Another major role of the agency will be to administer the new Workforce Development Fund. As part of the focus on jobs, a new Workforce Development Fund will be created to respond to the most critical emerging skills needed in Australia and is expected to deliver 130,000 new training places over four years.

Our government is also committed to assisting apprentices, raising the quality of their training and providing incentives to keep them in training. This includes investing in a national apprenticeship mentoring program to support apprentices to finish their training, and developing new apprenticeship models that allow apprentices to develop faster and that recognise prior learning.

In my electorate of Reid, I have spoken previously on the wonderful facility of the Southern Cross Catholic Vocational College in Burwood. With joint funding from the federal government and the Catholic Education Office, today the college is a state-of-the-art trade training centre with over 100 students already enrolled.

I remind the House that, during the last federal election campaign, the Leader of the Opposition threatened that, if elected, he would stop the funding of trade training centres. Fortunately this did not occur, and I was very pleased to welcome the Prime Minister to Reid only a few weeks ago, and specifically to the Southern Cross Catholic Vocational College in Burwood, where she witnessed firsthand the state-of-the-art facilities on offer for students. The Prime Minister met some of our future mechanics, future beauticians and future carpenters. The Prime Minister even gave a short interview with aspiring journalists as part of their media studies—a recording that they will surely keep for posterity.

I am extremely proud to be a member of a government that continues to acknowledge the importance of trade training and support for apprenticeships. The initiatives continue to assist skills development in many different learning environments, and I welcome these initiatives.

In addition to the National Workplace Workforce and Productivity Agency, the Workforce Development Fund and a national apprenticeship mentoring program, our government will also offer students from years 9 to 12 a new national trade cadetship as an option under the Australian curriculum. The cadetships will be delivered through the trade training centres and other eligible venues, with up to 50,000 additional structured work experience places provided to students. This will assist in real work experience for apprentices and ensure they are ready to start their jobs with confidence once they have graduated. However, unlike the graduates of the Southern Cross College of Vocational Education, some Australians struggle with basic numeracy and literacy, and this is a barrier that prevents them from participating in the workforce. As I said before, this budget does not forget the people who need us most, and our government is supporting Australians to help themselves and improve their future work opportunities by improving their basic skills.

I could not agree more with the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans, when he said that basic training is paramount to building this country's workforce. That is why I am so pleased that this government is funding 30,000 additional places for jobseekers in the Language, Literacy and Numeracy Program. Without basic literacy, many people are condemned to a life of little opportunity and, sadly, in many cases, long-term unemployment. Our government has committed to changing this by providing long-term job seekers with critical skills to allow them to participate more fully in the workforce. This additional funding is targeted at job seekers who are registered with Centrelink and are identified as experiencing significant disadvantage in the labour market due to low levels of language, literacy and/or numeracy. These are targeted programs where each participant is given an individual training plan which is tailored to meet their specific needs. The training program is typically face-to-face and can be vocationally oriented. For those who are struggling in a large group setting, there is the opportunity for them to engage in small group training.

The increased funding of such programs helps break down these barriers for more Australians and allow them to not only improve their lives and engage in further study but to actively participate in the economy. Without literacy, these Australians are vulnerable. It is important that Australians who struggle with literacy do not feel ashamed and, instead, take action and are helped to improve their skills. Our government is supporting these vulnerable Australians to do just that. We are helping to break the long-term cycles of lost opportunity and unemployment by supporting Australians who need help with basic literacy to improve their skills and, in turn, improve their job prospects. None of the unemployed people I speak to really want to be reliant on unemployment benefits. The people I speak to want to work, and this initiative will help some of the most vulnerable in our society to be able to do just that. On this point, I note that our government believes in ensuring everyone is given the support and the skills they need to seek out employment. With unemployment at low levels, this indicates the government is on the right track.

Our government is also on the right track when it comes to education. We acknowledge and value the challenging but important job done by teachers throughout Australia, particularly those who teach students with disabilities. That is why our government will invest $200 million over three years to support students with disabilities in their classrooms and improve their learning opportunities. I believe this is due recognition of the need to improve support for students with disabilities. I am confident this added support will not only directly benefit students but will also be of immense benefit and assistance to their teachers. I commend the Treasurer for this investment and I am pleased to note that this investment has been welcomed by the New South Wales Teachers Federation.

The additional funding will provide new services, such as speech and occupational therapy, at-school and in-class support, as well as access to specialised equipment. For higher education, the government is making the significant investment of a further $1.4 billion to meet the demand for growth in university enrolments. In this year alone the extra funding will provide 480,000 undergraduate places. Funding will also aim to upgrade infrastructure at regional tertiary institutions and assist universities to support, attract and retain students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Despite the tough decisions on savings measures that our government made in this budget, education was one area where we did not hesitate to provide further assistance. The federal Labor government has nearly doubled the national education budget because it is core to our belief that education is essential to our long-term prosperity. A community with excellent skills has enhanced opportunities and can remain competitive in a global labour market. We are a government that believes in providing all Australians, irrespective of their background, the opportunity and encouragement to achieve that potential. There is only one area that could be more important than education, and that is health. Nothing is more important than the health of our family and friends. My electorate of Reid boasts one of the best hospitals in the state, Concord Hospital, as well as many local GPs and medical services and, being part of the inner west of Sydney, our services are rated among the best in terms of accessibility and quality. The Gillard government is making an unprecedented investment of $3 billion in health reform right across Australia. Notably, the government has made the largest Commonwealth commitment to mental health services in Australia's history, including $1.5 billion worth of investment in this budget. The $2.2 billion mental health reform package targets funding where the services in those communities need it most, with a total of 90 headspace clinics, as well as early detection to support young people with mental illness.

I know that my electorate would be very pleased to receive direct funding under this initiative. Many constituents have raised their concerns with me about the need for more funding for mental health, and this unprecedented investment by our government has led to many people emailing their support for this measure. So I congratulate the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing. I know families and friends who care for people suffering with mental health conditions realise how important accessible treatment is for their loved ones, and I am sure that the new funding will go a long way to addressing this very important matter.

I also commend the Minister for Health and Ageing on her Diagnostic Imaging Review Reform Package. I previously led a campaign for a magnetic resonance imaging service for Concord Hospital as well as Medicare funding for these MRI services. I recognised then the importance of access to MRI services to facilitate faster diagnosis of patients as well as early detection of disease. MRI services at Concord Hospital have been of invaluable benefit for the health outcomes of my constituents, and I am very pleased that the minister has announced that our government will be extending Medicare funding to cover the cost of more MRI scans than ever before in both metropolitan and, importantly, regional areas of Australia. Moreover, the package announced by the minister will also help to reduce the cost of MRI services by increasing the bulkbilling incentives for MRI services. I have seen firsthand the importance of access to these services, and I am delighted that these benefits are being extended to even more Australians.

Another important issue that I campaigned on in my electorate is quality dental care. I am very pleased that our government will establish a voluntary dental internship program to encourage graduates to expand their skills and work in the public dental system. The increase in the number of graduates will improve the access to much needed dental services.

I am very proud to be a member of this Labor government which is delivering for those in our community that need it most. I commend the Treasurer for making the tough decisions without compromising the vital areas of training, education and health. This is a budget that will stand our country in good stead for the future and will allow us to return to surplus by 2012-13. I stress again that we are leading the world in all the OECD countries in terms of the health of our economy. And in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and the dreadful natural disasters that inflicted our country last year and earlier this year, this government is proving once and for all that we are very, very economically responsible and any thought that the Labor Party in federal government cannot manage the economy should be allowed to rest once and for all. We are the envy of the world and it is little wonder so much capital is powering into our country and the value of our dollar is so high.