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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 57


Senator SANTORO (1:24 PM) —I do not know whether Senator Nettle represents a constituency similar to the one that I represent, but my email address is very widely available and my telephone numbers are very widely available, and I wish to inform Senator Nettle—who has made a typical speech for Senator Nettle, representing the Greens—that her contribution does not add up in terms of the response to this issue that my office has received from the public. The public have obviously listened very carefully to the most reasonable explanations of Senator Vanstone in this place yesterday and, previously, outside this place. I have not yet received one representation on this matter, and that is a pretty good indicator of public opinion. Undoubtedly, members opposite and others will now organise an email campaign and I am sure that I will be getting plenty of emails over the next few days on this issue. That is the level of interest out there—and that does not mean that Australians are uninterested in how refugees and people who are here under a cloud should be treated. Australians are compassionate and show compassion. But clearly there is a widespread acceptance of the explanations by the government of this issue.

Today I wish to again return to a theme I have consistently spoken on since I entered the Senate in 2002 promising to work to keep the states honest and accountable for the Commonwealth money that they receive to support services delivery and infrastructure. The benefits to the states and territories of the new tax system introduced by the Howard-Costello government in 2000, just five years ago, are very plain. This financial year, 2004-05, total state and territory gains from tax reforms—that is, from the proceeds of the GST, every cent of which goes to the states and territories, and from compensation for GST deferral—are estimated to be $1.9 billion.

The biggest beneficiary of this process this year, and historically throughout the post-reform period, is my own state, Queensland. This year Queensland’s bonus from the GST is forecast to total $760 million plus. That is the bonus above the guaranteed minimum amount set under the Grants Commission formula, which guarantees that no state or territory will be financially worse off because of the tax reforms. For the record—and it needs to be constantly placed on the record because Queensland’s Premier and Treasurer are forever trying to cry poor or claim that the Commonwealth has ‘dudded’ them—the guaranteed minimum amount for Queensland in 2004-05 is $6.599 billion, so just short of $6.6 billion in federal funding.

This year, therefore, Queensland is receiving an additional 11.51 per cent in funding on top of the guaranteed minimum amount. That is a dividend on Queensland’s participation in the new tax system that far outstrips the general run of commercial returns. I should say too that it is a participation which Beattie Labor always knew was going to reap it rivers of gold but which it dishonestly opposed for blatantly party-political purposes. For this reason it is irritating to be constantly confronted by the plaintive cries of wolf that emanate from the executive building in George Street, Brisbane.

It is Premier Beattie and Treasurer Mackenroth who are the wolves in this scenario. Despite ramping up their own taxes and charges so that Queensland is no longer the low-tax state but merely a low-tax state, they still cannot make ends meet in the service delivery area. It is they who have deprived Queenslanders of services and put up state taxes and charges, some of them iniquitous like the ambulance tax, which many people pay many times over because it is collected with their electricity bill payments. It is they who have slashed and burned services while collecting the huge and politically risk-free annual bonus of windfall GST gains. It is they who have let public infrastructure slide into disrepair—electricity services, for example. We now know that the Energex power reticulation network in south-east Queensland is very run-down indeed and that both Mr Beattie and Mr Mackenroth knew this was going to happen if they kept fronting up to Energex and demanding money to prop up their various budgets.

It is Mr Beattie and Mr Mackenroth who preside over a public hospital system that turns away ambulances because there are no available beds, closes wards and cuts—cuts out altogether, in many cases—a range of specialist services for which they say they have no money, as state Liberal health spokesman Bruce Flegg has revealed. They preside over a system from which anaesthetists resign en masse, something that happened only yesterday, as I am sure you are aware, Madam Acting Deputy President. It is the Queensland Labor government that refuses to be fully accountable to the people of Queensland and the people of Australia for the money that it gets from the federal Treasury and that it spends.

Just last week, federal Minister for Trade Mark Vaile made the point on the ABC’s PM radio program that the ports and the logistic supply chains for which the states are responsible are absolutely critical to Australia’s export capacity and performance. As usual, the states—all Labor run—were saying that port infrastructure was not really a state matter. It was interesting to see that the latest leader to emerge from federal Labor’s revolving caucus door—the member for Brand in the other place must be dizzy; he has done the rounds with that door before—apparently shares his view. It is very easy for the states to say, whenever they need something done, that the Commonwealth should give them more money. But they already get a lot of money—and collect a lot more themselves—and must get real about their own fiscal responsibilities.

And they are all at it—not just Labor-run Queensland. In New South Wales, the government cannot even make the trains run on time. In Victoria, as in Queensland, the state hospital system is dysfunctional. The Labor governments in South Australia and Western Australia have their own begging bowls rattling at the Commonwealth at every opportunity. Labor has always been very good at wasting money, but the game is up. It is up because of the GST, which all the Labor states agreed to. It is worth just running through the 2004-05 GST bonuses in full, to illustrate the point. They are as follows: $760 million in Queensland, as I mentioned before; $196 million in New South Wales; $285 million in Victoria; $248 million in WA; $161 million in South Australia; $102 million in Tasmania; $60 million in the ACT; and $134 million in the Northern Territory.

GST collections this financial year are forecast to be $35.225 billion. In 2005-06 the forward estimate puts GST revenue at $37.160 billion, then $39.230 billion in 2006-07 and $41.330 billion in 2007-08. That is a great wicket for the states to be batting on. But they still want to play their self-serving little pea and thimble games with state spending. And they are still playing hide-and-seek over true accountability for their rising revenue and falling levels of service. In Queensland, the Beattie government are in F for fail mode on service delivery, but I will award them a gold star for inventive excuses. But that is not leadership, as I am sure others in here would agree, and it is not good government. It is not doing the job for Queenslanders that Australia’s taxpayers give them so much money to do.

There is one case in point that deserves to be mentioned in the national legislature. It is the question of Commonwealth funding for the upgrade of the Bruce Highway at Tully in North Queensland. To access this money—$88 million is available to floodproof that key section of highway and upgrade the highway standard—Queensland needs to sign up to the national code of practice for the building and construction industry. That should not be too hard; for a start it is commonsense.

The Bracks government in Victoria signed up yesterday; at least they have seen the light. The South Australian government has agreed to comply; that government has also seen the light. But the light is still out in Queensland, and not only in homes and small businesses with the power supply problems that the Beattie government has brought about. It is still out on the reform front, because in the context of the national agreement, Premier Beattie apparently would rather protect his union mates and their cosy little deals than sign up to government 21st century style.

Premier Beattie would rather deprive North Queensland and the town of Tully of desperately needed road improvements than sign up to and be accountable for $88 million, which is available for them to use—and all to protect their union friends. If Premier Beattie will not see the light, then he must explain to the Queensland people why it is more important to him to protect outdated and unacceptable union malpractices than to look after the interests of Queensland motorists and the highway lifeline in North Queensland. That highway carries nearly three million tonnes of freight a year. At Tully, this traffic—and of course family motorists too—has been disrupted 22 times in the past three years by floodwaters cutting the highway. Most civil engineering contractors already comply with the national code, yet Mr Beattie, who claims he is the leader of the smart state, simply will not.

Of course when you actually have a look at the midyear fiscal and economic review figures, they show that state taxation revenue is also increasing. I will not go through all the figures here today for the sake of brevity, but Queensland state taxation revenue is also up. There should be absolutely no excuse for the Beattie Labor government to say that they do not have sufficient moneys to provide services.

No wonder people thought that the state government should cough up when former State Governor Leneen Forde asked for an extra $2 million so her foundation can service the needs of an increasing number of former victims of abuse seeking assistance. The foundation got $900,000 instead. Funding for child safety in Queensland has now been sharply raised—and I admit in this place that that is good. But this necessary action was overly delayed by the Premier’s unwillingness to deal with the fact that his two previous ministers in the relevant portfolios—favourite failure Anna Bligh and dismal failure Judy Spence—were profound underperformers.

Then there is Energex. Its problems are many but just one instance will serve to illustrate the point. Out at Forest Lake, a new suburb on the south-western fringe of Brisbane, the power has a habit of going off. Forest Lake of course is not unique. A lot of places in south-east Queensland suffer outages, as they are called. This is a problem for a lot of people, including Premier Beattie, who in December decided he should offer compensation to households that had not had a fair go with their electricity supplies. But what about small business, whose inconvenience at the hands of financially strapped Energex—one of the government owned corporations that Peter Beattie has been robbing to pay goodness knows who—is financial as well as social? Why should businesses, small or large, have to bear a commercial cost to their operations because the Queensland government has effectively pulled the pin on their power supply? Is there not a case for compensation? I suggest that there is.

One business at Forest Lake recorded these interesting statistics on blackouts that cost it customers and therefore money: ‘Monday, 26 July 2004, lights out 6 p.m., 60 minutes in the dark. Monday, 6 September 2004, lights out 11.30 a.m., 120 minutes without power. Sunday, 24 October 2004, during the day, power out for two hours. Monday, 13 December 2004, 1 p.m., power out for three minutes. Friday, 17 December 2004, 12.52 p.m., power out for three minutes.’ Customers have a right to expect far better service than that. In fact, customers leave when the lights go out and do not return, thereby affecting the day’s sales, and the power failures put expensive computer software at risk.

The Beattie government is dragging its feet in so many other areas: for example, in the aged care sector, despite substantial Commonwealth funding. I am told staff at the state government run Eventide home at Sandgate in Brisbane have recently heard bed numbers there are to be cut. Here is a sample list of service needs unmet by the Beattie government, which says that it is the government of the smart state but clearly it is not. The Beattie government spends only $9,724 per high school student, the second lowest in the country, against the national average of $10,561. It is cutting back on important programs, such as Reading Recovery, teacher aides and other budget line items. As state Liberal education spokesman John-Paul Langbroek says, how can people have confidence that the government will deliver an effective service when the prep year is introduced statewide in 2007? When the state government is awash with GST and own-tax revenue, why can’t it improve its maximum $180 rates concession for Commonwealth pensioners and veteran gold card holders?

I could go on because I have extensive lists of underperformance and inadequate service delivery by a government that is awash with money, particularly money which we at the Commonwealth level make available to them. But even when we try to work closely with them to come up with deals that, for example, will help farmers, what happens? Only today we have heard another example of the total ineptitude of the Beattie Labor government. Mr Beattie has torpedoed three months of good, solid and practical work designed to assist the Emerald citrus growers who have been blighted by the citrus canker outbreak. He has said that he now does not want to participate in that deal that has been worked out with the Commonwealth. Good on the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Hon. Warren Truss MP, who today has again uncovered another area of ineptitude by the Queensland government in terms of service delivery—in this particular case, as in the case of highway funding, an inability and an unwillingness, for ideological reasons, to work with the Commonwealth government—that seeks to enhance the lifestyle of Queenslanders and the viability of citrus fruit growers. (Time expired)