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Monday, 23 May 2011
Page: 4103


Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (18:46): I want to address a number of aspects of the budget that have not been remarked on by other people, and I want to start off with the government's determination to make an input in the area of homelessness. Recently in St Kilda we have seen the benefits of this government's commitment to do something about the issue of homelessness. In March, along with the Minister for Social Housing and Homelessness, Mark Arbib, I opened the St Kilda community housing project. This project was supported by the Australian government social housing initiative and had transformed a 20-room shared facility boarding house into a rooming house with 34 self-contained apartments of a decent standard. This project has yielded tremendous results for the individuals who are able to recommence their lives, often by getting back into housing and, therefore, back into employment and back into the community.

The government should be very proud of some of its activities in the areas of homelessness, and the opening of the centre followed a wonderful co-achievement with the Salvation Army that was completed earlier this year, again, with the government's absolute commitment to addressing the issue of homelessness. The Salvation Army initiative, along with private and government money, has transformed an area of Prahran along Dandenong Road into one of the paradigms of how a decent society can treat people who are in an unfortunate situation of homelessness.

I must say, in all of the reactions to the budget I was astonished at the shadow Treasurer's assertion that the global financial crisis was a hiccup. I think this illustrates the difference in the attitude of this government and the perspective that this government has from the opposition. The shadow Treasurer wants to be the Treasurer of this nation—a nation that has had the chair of the G20 because of the respect in which Australia is held—and he says that the global financial crisis is a hiccup. What is 21 per cent unemployment in Spain? The young people there are in the squares demonstrating because 45 per cent of people under 30 have no work. Is 15 per cent unemployment and a completely ruined economy in Ireland a hiccup? Is the fact that Greece is virtually bankrupt a hiccup? Some people have no perspective. Australia is in a very strong financial situation largely due to the activities of this government and the solid way the Treasurer handled the global financial crisis.

I would like to turn to the issue of our investment in education and the much derided and attacked Building the Education Revolution. Let us not talk falsely as those opposite do about this government's funding of new school classrooms. In nearly every electorate that I know the money has been spent in the most efficacious way possible. We are a growing country with large numbers of children entering schools. This expenditure on schools, classrooms in particular, has come at a perfect time for many schools across the nation—government, independent and the Catholic school system.

The debate about school funding has been drowned out by people like radio compere Neil Mitchell at 3AW, who laughably refers to 'school halls without doors'. This is such a joke. Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure that in your electorate and in the electorate of every member, if you go to see the buildings that have been built as a result of the BER you will see such pride from the school communities and such intelligent use of the money in every educational system.

It was very enervating for me to read in the Herald Sun about 'school halls without doors' after going to open St Columba's Primary School in Elwood, or Mount Scopus Primary School in Mayfield Street, or at Lauriston outside my electorate, or Shelford Anglican Girls' School in my electorate, or St Kilda Primary School or Caulfield Junior College, where my children used to attend. The is a complete transformation of the educational atmosphere in which our kids are studying now, right across Australia, thanks to this laughably called 'school halls without doors'. It is a complete transformation and has achieved its purpose of employing large numbers of tradesmen, who would otherwise have been unemployed during the global financial crisis. I ask Mr Mitchell and the coalition: if the investment in new school buildings, classrooms, science and language centres and playing fields is a waste of time, why do federal and state coalition members continue to turn up to every school, not only in my electorate but around the country, to bask in the thanks of grateful school communities? Why do the editors of the Herald Sunand journalists like Peter Mickelburough fail to respond to invitations from schools that they attack in their newspapers to come and see what has been achieved, not just with the government money but often with the government money leveraged with money from school communities who have built even better facilities than would have been possible if they had just used the government BER money?

Recently I represented the government at an opening at Lauriston Girls School, a very famous school in the electorate of Higgins. It is not in my electorate but I was asked to represent the government and I did. Lauriston is a wonderful school and has long been a beacon of girls education. The member for Higgins, Kelly O'Dwyer, was there as well, which is fair enough since she is the local member. She seemed very supportive of Lauriston Girls School, as she should be. However, whenever the member for Higgins has had the chance she has risen to speak in this House and in press releases of the government's funding of school building being a crime against the taxpayer. What incendiary language! It certainly was not the language used when we were at Lauriston Girls School for the wonderful ceremony for the opening of the new facility they have there at the back of an Italianate building, which they have now been able to completely refurbish.

This overblown hyperbole and incendiary language does Neil Mitchell, the editors of the Herald Sun and their journalists and the coalition no good at all. I ask them: what school funding would you cut? What schools would have their BER programs cut? Would the coalition call the investment in the refurbishment of classrooms at the Victorian College for the Deaf a crime against the taxpayer? I think not. It is one world in here and one world out there. They are all at the opening of these schools and they are all criticising it in here.

To my dismay, these overblown falsehoods extended to the Melbourne newspaper the Herald Sun. Last year journalists Peter Mickelburough and John Masanauskas claimed in their article 'You pay $150m for rich schools' that Caulfield Junior College was a rich private school. Caulfield Junior College is in fact a government school. Perhaps in the inverted snobbery of the Herald Sun because this government school looks so good, has such good academic results and was able to use its BER money so effectively, these people think it is a private school. In fact it is a government school that has used the BER money. Again, if you had been there at the ceremony, Mr Mickelburough or the editors of the Herald Sun, you would have seen that it has completely transformed the educational circumstances in which our Australian children work. In fact, we can say that under this government we have seen a golden era of investment in our schools. If we do not invest in providing our children with the best equipped schools and the best resources, we do not only ourselves but also the nation a disservice.

Let me turn to the wisdom of the idea of free-trade agreements. Australia has been a leader in the export of agricultural commodities since the 19th century and a significant supplier of processed foods to the world, mostly to Britain. Since the creation of the EU—and there is certainly no need to detail this to the House—with its multitude of supports for its own agriculture, Australia has had to turn to other places in South Asia, North Asia and the Middle East. We have very good exports to those parts of the world and there is a substantial and growing demand for fresh and processed products in the food services sector. Processed food now constitutes 15 to 20 per cent of retail consumption in Turkey, and the largest market in the region for such foods is Saudi Arabia, where 80 per cent of retail food is imported consumer ready. Food service markets to hotels, resorts and restaurants is growing rapidly. In the UAE 200 new hotels are expected within five years. The food service industry provides a great opportunity for Australian food processing and exporting. Market access in the Middle East is said to be improving with barriers such as laws on food additives, high tariffs and prohibition of processed foods being reduced.

This would be all well and good if it were to actually work like that. However, many countries have replaced their old tariff protection with excessively strict quarantine, labelling and packaging controls. I certainly understand the need for Australia's exporters to places like Turkey to pay attention to product labelling requirements, religious and health restrictions on food additives and alcohol, product testing, turnaround times and specific documents needed for imports, a large number of these countries, including Turkey, are using both tariff and non-tariff barriers to make Australian products non-competitive in their marketplaces. It is particularly annoying when products in a similar area, such as fruit juices, are imported into Australia with minimal tariff or non-tariff barriers.

I want to turn finally to what the Lowy Institute calls the diplomatic deficit in Australia—that is, the shrinking of funding in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is something that has occurred not just during this government but over the past 20 years. DFAT's diplomatic corps has shrunk very substantially. I want to read an excerpt from a very significant paper presented to an inquiry into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade by Dr Paul Monk:

While the Federal public service grew by a whopping 25 to 30 per cent between 1996 and 2008, DFAT contracted by 11 percent. Over the past twenty years, DFAT's diplomatic corps shrank by nearly 40 per cent, from 870 overseas based staff in 1989 to 537 in 2009. While monies passed through DFAT for various purposes had increased by hundreds of millions of dollars per annum over the past decade, its operating budget had suffered seriously. Indicative of the relative neglect of DFAT is the fact that its resourcing has shrunk over the past decade from 0.43 to 0.25 percent of Federal government spending.

The most significant consequence of this reduction, both relative and absolute, in resourcing for DFAT has been what the present Secretary, Mr Dennis Richardson, described as the near incapacitation of our overseas representation in several crucial respects. One of the starkest indices of this is that Australia has fewer overseas missions (89) than all but four members of the OECD. Those four are the Slovak Republic, Ireland, New Zealand and Luxembourg and far fewer than the OECD average 150.

There are 120-plus missions of various countries here in Canberra. There are countries of more than 50 million people in which Australia is unrepresented. I can think of one in particular—Ukraine. We had representation this morning from the Ukrainian embassy here in Canberra. Ukraine is a country of 50 million people. It is full of technical universities, particularly in its eastern half, which produce very capable mining engineers—something you would have thought Australia would be very interested in, particularly with our important skills based migration program—yet this is a country where Australia is completely unrepresented. It is very difficult for people from Ukraine to get visas to Australia. They have to apply for a visa to Moscow, and once they are in Russia, they are able to apply for a visa to Australia. This is the effect our under-representation overseas is having.

In contrast to the member for McMillan, I am very supportive of this budget and the Prime Minister. I think this budget's contribution to skills training and mental health, and the government's responsibility in bringing the budget back to surplus, are very good elements. But Australia must do more to ensure that as a big, confident and wealthy country we have proper representation overseas. We need to look very closely at where our foreign missions are based, and we need more of them.