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Wednesday, 23 May 2012
Page: 5451


Ms PARKE (Fremantle) (19:14): I speak today in support of the appropriation bills that underpin the Gillard Labor government's return to surplus budget. At the outset I want to congratulate the Treasurer, his staff and his department for the extremely significant, and yet still underrated, achievement of delivering a surplus so soon after the global economic wreckage that began in 2008 and of putting Australia on a path to surplus budgets in the years to come, while continuing this government's steadfast pursuit of necessary and innovative reform, especially with regard to the introduction of a National Disability Insurance Scheme. It is right to focus on the return to surplus as the key characteristic of this budget and to recognise the difficult decisions that have been made in order to get us to this position when there has been such a large contraction in the revenue side of the equation. Through these appropriation bills we take a number of further critical steps in improving the provision of public goods and the foundation of economic fairness of this country.

I will speak in more detail of these steps in due course but first I will consider the quite remarkable core details of Australia's macroeconomic position. The OECD has confirmed overnight that Australia has the best-performing economy in the developed world, with stable economic growth of around three per cent this year and projected to be closer to four per cent next year, at a time when the majority of the world's major economies have suffered, and are continuing to suffer, recession. Unemployment in Australia remains around five per cent—in historically low territory—as a direct result of this government's actions to protect the Australian economy during the GFC.

We have created more than 800,000 jobs since taking office and we have done that while returning Australia to a fair system of workplace regulation. I recall that when the Labor government got rid of Work Choices we did so in the face of a scaremongering campaign conducted by the coalition and supported by many in the business community and some in the press, who said that the abolition of Work Choices would cost jobs. That was plainly wrong. It is one of the government's great achievements that we have restored a fair and sensible framework of workplace regulation and at the same time grown the Australian workforce and the opportunities for Australians to have the benefit of fair and safe work.

Inflation in this country is stable and low, not least as a result of this government's fiscal discipline, with our peak net debt one-tenth of that of comparable economies. Interest rates are also at historically low levels and certainly are lower than at any point under the Howard government. As the Treasurer has pointed out, Australia now has a AAA credit rating from all three major ratings agencies for the first time in our history. That is not surprising when we consider the basic statistics I have outlined: steady growth at three per cent, unemployment at five per cent, inflation under three per cent and the RBA cash rate at 3.75 per cent.

The significance of these economic achievements, which speak clearly to the quality and consistency of this government's economic management over the last 4½ turbulent years, is felt right across the country, especially with respect to employment but also in the form of low, stable interest rates and inflation. What is more, the fundamental strength of the Australian economy is not just an end in itself—at least not for a Labor government—because we recognise that a strong economy ought to be the foundation of positive reform. We are seized by the fact that there is always work to be done in improving the public goods we share like health, education, environment and of course in preparing ourselves properly for the future. In that way this budget, our fifth budget in government, continues to add steadily to the changes we have introduced and funded for the long-term benefit of all Australians.

It builds on the investment we have made in schools and trade training centres, like the Maritime Trades Training Centre at South Fremantle High School, and by offering nearly $1 billion to the WA government for reforms under the auspices of the National Workforce Development Fund, one object of which is the creation of a HECS-style system of loans to support TAFE students. In terms of university education we are making an investment of $38.8 million over the next four years, with the cap on university places, with a particular emphasis on raising the participation of lower-SES students. On that point, it is worth noting that since 2009 our setting of targets to improve the participation of students whose economic circumstances create an inequality of opportunity has resulted in a 49.3 per cent increase in the number of offers to lower-SES students to attend Curtin University, a 9.7 per cent increase at Murdoch and an 11.2 per cent increase at the University of Western Australia. That is an emphatic improvement and it is resulting in better and fairer opportunities for young Western Australians, a number of whom, like myself many years ago, will come from outside the Perth metro area for their chance of a university education.

In this coming financial year we will see the introduction of the mining tax and the staged introduction of compulsory superannuation towards a super guarantee of 12 per cent by 2020, with the twin benefits for the individual and for Australia as a whole of much higher personal savings in retirement for millions of Australians. In this coming year we will also see a tripling of the tax-free threshold and reform of the tax treatment of superannuation that is fairer at both ends of the scale. It is fairer by virtue of the fact that it ensures some 3.6 million low-income Australians will effectively pay no tax on their super guarantee contributions and it is fairer at the other end of the scale by ensuring that the top one per cent of income earners receive a smaller tax concession—one that is more in line with the concession that most wage earners receive. In considering how a government is able to make savings and fund new commitments at the same time, it is clear that the difficult work tends to be in removing payments, subsidies or revenue concessions that are not equitable or effective. This government has been prepared to grasp that nettle and we have done so in a climate of unrelenting negativity—and we have been prepared to take the political consequences. We have done so in being prepared to make changes to the private health insurance rebate, we have done so when it comes to better means-testing of family support payments and we have done so in the area of tax concessions on superannuation. When we took government, something like $17 billion of the $21 billion in annual tax concessions on super was going to the top 5 per cent of all income earners. That was not a sound policy outcome by any measure.

It is by making these eminently fair and prudent reforms, however difficult they might be politically, that this government has been in a position to run the strongest economy in the OECD and embark on one of the steadiest, most far-sighted reform programs in Australia's history. That is why this budget is able to build on one of our previous substantial reforms, matched funding in the area of health, by beginning to tackle one of the great blind spots in our public health framework—namely, the public funding of dental healthcare. This budget provides $515 million to address urgent dental care needs. It does so, firstly, through a $346 million blitz to tackle the long waiting lists for public dental services; secondly, through $78 million to support the relocation of dentists to rural, regional, and remote areas, the three Rs of geographic health inequality in Australia; and, thirdly, through an $81 million boost to training for graduate dentists and therapists. I congratulate the Minister for Health, who referred to dental health in her first speech as health minister. We are already starting to see that commitment turned into reality.

I am also incredibly pleased to see the extension of the National Bowel Cancer Screening Program, with $49.3 million allocated to include screening for people turning 60 years of age in 2013 and those turning 70 years of age in 2015. This has the potential to make screening freely available to around 12 per of the people in my electorate over the next few years. It is yet another important preventative health measure from a government that has made preventative health one of its key focuses. I thank the Cancer Council of Australia for its strong campaign on this important issue.

Above all else, I am absolutely delighted that in this budget a Labor government is providing $1 billion over four years to fund the first stage of the National Disability Insurance Scheme in order to cover 10,000 people from 2013-14 and 20,000 people from 2014-15. Yet again, when it comes to the NDIS, this government shows its commitment to good policy process and to following through on that process with real reform and real funding. In 2011 we tasked the Productivity Commission with the job of considering the best way to provide better and fairer support for Australians with disability. Through that process it was brought home to all of us in government and to the wider community that people with disability face circumstances that vary wildly depending on which part of Australia they live in and on the cause of their disability, and that the funding and mechanisms currently in place to ensure a basic quality of life are at best patchy and are in some cases abominably inadequate. This is a long-awaited and long-overdue first step—and it is only a first step—but, as the representative of a community that is strongly engaged on the need to do much better in caring for people with disability and enabling them to live their lives as fully as everyone else and to lighten the sometimes unbearable weight that our current system places on carers and families, I can say that the arrival of the NDIS is hugely welcome.

While of course I understand the effort and discipline required to make real reductions in government expenditure for the sake of returning the budget to surplus, that does not mean that I agree with all the measures through which this has been achieved. Like others, I have my own view on where savings should be made and my own sense of those programs and priorities that should not have been asked to provide reductions. I am glad that Australia's contributions in the areas of foreign aid and humanitarian assistance will increase by $300 million in 2012-13 and that we remain committed to reaching a level of contribution of 0.5 per cent of GNI. But I do not believe we should have delayed our progress towards reaching that level of foreign aid. Australia is in a very strong economic position and I do not see the justification for lessening, or slowing the rate of growth in our contribution to relieving the hardship and suffering of those of our fellow human beings who live not in relative poverty, like many in Australia, but in absolute poverty—those for whom rising electricity and fuel prices do not matter because they have no houses or appliances or cars. They are struggling just to find food and water to survive each day. To borrow the words of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, 'We cannot balance the budget on the backs of the world's poor.' As a representative from Western Australia, I want to conclude by addressing what seems to have become an entrenched myth about the role and place that my home state has within the federation. It is a myth that runs in a couple of different directions—and it is a myth that to a large extent is being perpetrated by a very small number of self-interested state politicians and mining magnates. The first aspect of the myth is the idea that Western Australia's resource sector is running so strongly that everyone in WA is basking in the economic glow. This is just wrong—and it comes as a shock to some people when they learn that the resources sector is only responsible for employing something like four percent of the Western Australian workforce. Yes, there are indirect benefits of the resources industry—but there are matching indirect costs, including the cost of housing and other goods and services. This means that those not directly or indirectly involved are actually living in a higher-cost environment, and this is particularly difficult for those on low and fixed incomes.

The second aspect of the myth is the idea perpetrated up hill and down dale by the WA government, and by the WA coalition representatives in this place, that Western Australia is somehow being short-changed by the Commonwealth. That is absolute rubbish, and it is rubbish based entirely on a very narrow, selective, distorted and hypocritical view of the GST arrangements—which of course were put in place by the Howard government. Can I say how glad I was to read a fine piece of analysis in the West Australian on Monday pointing out that the expected reduction in direct government-to-government payments from the Commonwealth to WA over the next four years is $700 million, whereas the increase in mining royalties is double that, at $1.4 billion dollars in the next two years alone. As Shane Wright, the economics editor of the West Australian rightly points out:

While certainly more GST would make their job easier, life isn't too bad when you're billions of dollars in front of where you thought you'd be just a couple of years ago.

People who live in WA—including the coalition members in this place—should perhaps ask how it is that the WA government can only manage the barest real surplus of $26 million dollars in 2012-13 when its annual revenue has jumped $4.8 billion from last year? The fact is that the Barnett government continues to blame the federal government for its own failure to provide good economic management in Western Australia.

While this federal government has delivered an unprecedented and transformative capital investment in schools right across WA, and a mining tax that will return a fair share of WA's resource development to Western Australians in the form of increased superannuation and new infrastructure, the Barnett government has presided over a 60 per cent explosion in electricity costs and the occasional colour picture of a poorly conceived waterfront development.

The reality is that this federal Labor government has nearly doubled annual infrastructure spending in WA from $154 to $261 per Western Australian; it has provided the largest increase in payments for WA pensioners in Australia's history, with the addition of a higher-paying method of indexation for those pensions; and it has made a greater investment in public transport and road projects and school buildings in WA than any previous federal government. These transport projects include the Perth Link rail project and the widening of the Kwinana Freeway between the Leach and Roe highways, and of course the lion's share of the Gateway WA project, involving a major upgrade of the roads around Perth Airport.

I am a proud and passionate Western Australian, and as such I am strongly conscious of the fact that there has been throughout Australia's history a gravitational pull that has centred on Canberra and the larger eastern states, with the effect that those of us who represent WA and South Australia, and who represent Queensland and Tasmania and the Northern Territory, need to keep our voices loud and clear about what goes on outside the Canberra-Sydney-Melbourne triangle. It is precisely because I hold this perspective that I find the self-interested and baseless parochialism of some politicians and some businesspeople so disappointing. I have fought and will continue to fight for my constituents in Fremantle, and for my state, but I will always do so as a thoughtful and responsible member of the Australian parliament—and with a fundamental sense of belonging to this nation as a whole; a nation whose collective long-term interests we all share and from which we all benefit.

This budget sits well in the sequence of economic blueprints that the Labor government have designed and implemented and that we will continue to implement in the provision of stable economic management, which in turn allows us to deliver on our ethos of a fairer and more forward-looking Australia.

Debate adjourned.

Federation Chamber adjourned at 19:29.