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Monday, 23 May 2011
Page: 4066


Ms LEY (Farrer) (16:05): I am delighted to rise today to speak on the three budget appropriation bills, which are being debated concurrently, and also the amendment moved recently by the member for Goldstein. I can summarise in one sentence the response of my constituents in the electorate of Farrer when I consult them about it: 'When all the indicators tell us that Australians are doing so well and whenever we pick up a newspaper, read the business pages, turn on the radio and listen to our respected business commentators we are told that as a nation we are doing well, why do we as a family feel that we are doing badly, that we are pressured with cost of living increases at the fuel bowser, in the supermarket and particularly in the area of child care?'

That summarises, as I said, the confusion that people are currently feeling in response to the budget. The government talks very much about a budget that focuses on savings, but on one hand it is saving while on the other hand it is spending. It is saving about $21 billion but the budget turns around and delivers about $18.1 billion in additional spending. So the government cannot be taken seriously when it talks about wanting to bring the budget back into surplus and keeping the economy strong.

In November last year we were told that the deficit for 2010-11 would be $41½ billion, but on budget night it was revealed that it had blown out to almost $50 billion. In November we were told that net debt would peak at $94 billion and on budget night it was revealed that that figure is now $107 billion. Not only that but net debt is set to stay above $100 billion for at least the next four years. The government continues to borrow $135 million a day, and interest on Labor's debt will be a staggering $7 billion a year. As we point out quite often, once the budget is back into surplus it will not mean that all the debt that has been accumulated during the period of Labor being in office will have been repaid. It will not; the budget will just be in surplus. There is a huge task ahead of us. I know these big numbers often do not mean much to people when they are talked about in the way that I just have, but imagine what we could do with $135 million a day. Imagine what projects we would all find in our electorates and what worthwhile spending we would all want to support.

This is a narrowcast government without imagination. I forgive people for a lot of things but I never forgive them for lack of imagination. The constraints they are under because of this requirement to service this huge budget deficit mean that there are very few things they could do even if they had the imagination to do them. I know it is easy to hark back to the time when we were in government and to how good those days were—they certainly were by comparison—but when I go back to those times the thing I remember is that we as a government had flexibility. This government does not have the flexibility to move within the constraints of the enormous debt burden that it has given itself.

There might have been legislation on the table during the Howard government that was not quite right. We could talk about ways we could fix it. We could find some additional funding to address a certain problem. I remember, for example, managed investment schemes and an Australian Taxation Office determination that really affected people in my electorate who had made investments. A sensible, mature discussion meant that they could be looked after. There are many other examples. I remember that exceptional circumstances support for farmers during drought did not extend to those who were irrigators. We talked about it and we worked out that that was not reasonable. More money was found to support irrigated agriculture, because the budget was strong and government had the capacity to do that.

My real criticism of this budget is that the government does not have the capacity to move and everything is constrained. I want to reflect on the response within my electorate of Farrer but also from the perspective of being the opposition spokesperson for employment and child care. Cost of living is coming up for us as local members more than is any other single issue, and child care is absolutely critical to that. We saw in the press this week that childcare centres had been forced to use collection agencies to extract unpaid debts from families. That just goes to show how close to the wind many of our childcare private provider and community provider businesses are.

Just last week I was in the electorate of my neighbour, the member for Parkes, between Dubbo and Coonamble. I visited Coonamble Children's Services, which is a community childcare centre. It is a good example of why child care has to work for the families that use it. Without this childcare centre, many people in the town of Coonamble could not work. That is the point. One of the members of the committee is, I think, a stenographer. She said that if she is not there in the town of Coonamble to work as a stenographer people will have to go to Dubbo to get their medical services, which is quite some distance—two hours down the road. If the childcare centre is not there, she is not going to be able to carry out her job. So we lose the participation of that person but, more importantly, we lose the medical service in this small town, along with the childcare service when it is affected.

This was a community childcare centre just struggling to make ends meet, if I can put it like that. This is not a result of the times; this is a result of the government's national quality framework. We in the coalition support improved quality standards. We support anything that gives us high-quality child care, but we have an important key difference from the government: we say that we already do have a strong, very high-quality childcare sector in this country. The Minister for Employment Participation and Childcare does not seem to actually be the minister for child care; she seems to be the minister who complains about child care and criticises our childcare sector against every measure we stack up, and we stack up very well.

This quality framework is demanding that small centres employ staff who have higher levels of qualifications than they already do. They need to change the ratio of staff to children, particularly babies, and they need to jump through an enormous series of bureaucratic hoops, which, as I have said many times, involves—picture this, and it is real—a childcare worker with a toddler on one hip and a clipboard on the other ticking off boxes and making sure that the bureaucrats somewhere, should they ever want to check out what actually happened on the paper trail, have that paper trail secured, never mind so much the care of the children. Of course, this is the wrong approach. It goes against any common sense that you could muster.

The national quality framework—and the government has done nothing in the budget to step away from that—is going to add to the real costs for families. It is going to mean that childcare centres put up their fees. It is going to mean, as we have seen in the press today, that childcare centres have to use debt collection agencies to collect debts as small as $50. That is, as I said, how close their businesses are sailing to the wind. They have no fat in the system. They have no savings. They are operating from day to day in their accounting. Every cent that comes in needs to be there to pay for wages or, for example, to pay for locums. I visited a childcare centre in eastern Sydney. While some of their staff are training, they still need to keep the ratios where the government is demanding they be. There is no flexibility in that but, more importantly, the trained quality staff are not available to fill these positions; they are using agencies. The cost of employing an agency person is skyrocketing to up to $100 an hour. A childcare centre in eastern Sydney may well be able to afford that, but certainly a rural and regional one cannot. From my point of view, there are real alarm bells in the childcare sector in this country. Generally, this was a budget that was defined by its broken promises and backflips. As has been pointed out, it is rife with class warfare, gimmicky stunts and destined to add to the white elephants before it: pink batts, building Julia Gillard's memorial halls, cash for clunkers and so on.

The Productivity Places Program was the flagship of the Prime Minister's attempt to solve the skills crisis, but the funding for the Productivity Places Program has been redirected to fund $360 million for the Trades Apprentice Income Bonus, $94 million to the New Enterprise Initiative Scheme—where was this funding previously?—and $399 million over four years towards the Building Australia's Future Workforce package. What this highlights is the sheer waste and ineffectiveness of the Productivity Places Program, which was so great that even the brains behind it had to concede that it is better off being discarded to the scrapheap of irrelevant, ineffective government programs.

To many, that sounds like a bit of mumbo jumbo, but what I am saying is that one grandiosely titled program has been replaced by another, money has been moved around and more bureaucrats have been employed in the process. The government is talking about incentives and places as if somehow these are all going to translate into jobs—they may; they may not. What we really need to solve the skills crisis is a concerted effort by the government to address what some of the fundamental problems are, for example, in apprenticeship training. Also, there is no program to bring people with the right skills to Australia and keep them here, and the economy lacks the flexibility to change when required.

I also want to touch on the National Broadband Network because it is very important to rural and regional constituents. As a member of the Joint Committee on the National Broadband Network, I have gained a very interesting insight into what is going on. I have been very disturbed about the cost, the quality and the future, particularly for my constituents. In a public hearing last week I asked the CEO of NBN Co., Mr Quigley, when those who are outside the 93 per cent fibre footprint could expect to get an improvement in their broadband services. This group of Australians has not been promised speeds of 100 megabits per second but only 12 megabits per second—which is better than they are getting now and they will take that. When I asked when that might reasonably be expected to happen or when work might reasonably be expected to start, it was clearly in the never-never.

I was disappointed that the question did not really seem to have occurred to the NBN Co. management. I do not want to be unfair, because I am going to demand that they bring back answers to our committee. It is not good enough to just say that they are delivering fibre to 93 per cent. I know it does sound like a lot—and I have great concerns about their ability to do that, by the way—but while rural, regional and remote Australians know they will not get the same deal as those in the capital cities they do want to have some expectation of improved services, particularly given that at the last election many of them considered increased telecommunications as one of the reasons they voted the way they did. Maybe they did not believe Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd when they talked about those increases and improvements—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: The honourable member for Farrer should refer to the Prime Minister and the foreign minister by their titles and not by their names.

Ms LEY: I apologise and I acknowledge that you are completely correct. The National Broadband Network and increased broadband services are vote changers and can be game changers, but the rationale behind this government's re-nationalisation of Australia's telecommunications system is not going to deliver that in a cost-effective manner. We know there has not been a cost-benefit analysis of the NBN. We know that every time we look at the numbers they are skyrocketing. We know that rural and regional constituents are not particularly important unless they happen to be strategically located so that the Prime Minister makes a fuss of them, but that is not happening for the vast majority of rural and regional Australians.

The government has not yet demonstrated to me that fibre to the curb, fibre to the node or fibre to anywhere but the premises would not deliver a much better solution. As I say to people, 'If I have fibre to the premises, why should I be able to sit and watch Toy Story 3 in 3D on delayed telecast with the massively increased bandwidth that comes to my house, without producing a single productive thing for the nation, when somebody who lives next door to me who may be a pensioner is paying for that through increased taxes?' The scale of the spend is absolutely frightening.

I want to mention one more thing because it is critical to the electorate of Farrer—that is, water. As a member of the Standing Committee on Regional Australia, along with Tony Windsor and many of my good colleagues on both sides of this place, we are shortly going to be recommending a course of action. It is important that the government acknowledges that the Murray-Darling Basin plan in its current form, or even in the form it is at now and moving to—I guess we do not know exactly where that is—really has to service the needs of rural communities that depend on water.

As I have said many times, it is possible to get a balance between irrigated agriculture and the environment. It is not a zero-sum game; you do not need to have one or the other. It is time that the government listened to those rural communities and understood their perspective when they voice their real concerns about the effects of this plan on their future. I am delighted to have been a member of that committee. I know that we have done some good work. In travelling the country, we have heard the truth and it is important that we reflect that in this place when it comes to a final report. (Time expired)