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Tuesday, 10 September 1996
Page: 3866

Mr BEVIS(5.55 p.m.) —I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1). I intend in my remarks to talk about the broad parameters of the budget and some of the detail, but of course there will be other appropriation bills and legislation that afford the opportunity to talk in detail on particular portfolios. At the outset I wish to address some of the broader issues of the budget and the way in which it has been presented by the Liberal government.

There is absolutely no doubt that the budget contains cuts which have hurt many Australians. That is not an issue which anyone on either side of the parliament could argue against, although those on the other side would argue that there are reasons for inflicting that pain on Australians. The Liberals have sought to justify the pain on the basis of what they would claim to be a poor budgetary situation that they inherited. That is a piece of false propaganda and it needs to be exposed.

The Australian government's budget debt is small by any standard. It is in fact the third lowest in the OECD. There are only two countries in the OECD whose budget deficit is in a better position than the Australian government budget deficit, and they are Norway and Denmark. To suggest that the deficit inherited by this government on changeover of office earlier this year gives rise to the sort of pain they inflict upon ordinary Australians is a deception that is cruel to those they hurt in this budget.

It is worth having a look at the Australian government's record over the years when it comes to balancing the budget. The simple fact is that since the Second World War we have only ever had four surplus budgets in this parliament—and it remains to be seen in 12 months what the bottom line of this budget will be. Looking back through the records, you find that those four budgets which were in surplus were in 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990—four Labor budgets. The only surplus budgets since the Second World War were delivered by Labor governments in the Hawke and Keating period.

The Howard budget that he left the incoming government in 1983, his final budget in 1982-83, had a deficit which in 1996 terms would represent $24 billion to $26 billion. That is not a black hole in proportional terms; that is a black canyon. So, by international comparison, the budget deficit that this government confronts is one of the lowest. The economic position of the government is strong and the economy that it inherited is strong. The sort of situation the coalition left for Labor in 1983 was three times worse than the current one in relation to the budget deficit.

It should not be forgotten either that, if you look at the last budget and the performance of the Liberal and National parties in this parliament at that time, some $2 billion of the deficit in the last financial year was directly attributable to the amendments to the budget measures that the Liberal Party forced through the Senate in the last parliament.

The second excuse which the Liberal Party have sought to use to justify the pain they are inflicting upon ordinary Australians is that the pain has somehow been evenly spread; that all Australians are sharing in the burden of their cuts. That is another piece of cruel, cynical propaganda.

The simple fact is high income earners face somewhat of an inconvenience through the possible extra charges for Medicare and higher taxes on superannuation. They are of nuisance value to those people on high in comes. For those people who receive low and middle incomes, the ordinary families of Australia, they face extra charges that are going to affect their lifestyle.

We are not talking here about matters of convenience; we are talking about the very lifestyle that Australian families are going to be forced to take as a result of the budget measures. The budget will hurt their children's career choices; it will affect the frail parents and the care that they are able to get; it will hurt their children's child-care arrangements; it will hurt their access to job training opportunities; it will hurt their access to help if they are unemployed; and, most importantly, it will reduce their job security.

This budget contains a forecast on economic growth for the year ahead of just 3½ per cent. That is lower than the economic growth that we have had over the last four years. The Treasurer (Mr Costello) stands before the parliament and produces a budget which he claims to be proud of, which will produce for this nation the lowest level of economic growth that we have seen in five years. The Liberal Party want to take some comfort out of that. In fact, their own document, budget statement No. 1, includes an interesting assessment of what they think is going to happen to ordinary Australians. When we look at private consumption—that is, the money which ordinary citizens will spend in the year ahead—the budget papers themselves say this:

Private consumption growth is expected to moderate to 3 per cent in 1996-97, an outcome slightly below the average of the past twenty years.

This government are introducing a budget with measures that they know will reduce the growth in people's spending power to a level which is lower than the average for the last 20 years; yet they are proud of that. The simple fact is that, over the course of the last couple of budgets, the Labor government was able to see the economy grow in excess of four per cent per year. This government seem content to wind the economy back and see a growth rate around 3½ per cent.

Of course, with a growth rate around 3½ per cent, it is no surprise to find that the budget papers also contain gloomy news on the employment front. The government's own budget paper forecast unemployment to average 8.5 per cent in the year ahead. That is the same as last year. Given growth rates below four per cent, the expectation of maintaining unemployment at an unacceptably high level of 8½ per cent is itself very optimistic.

The simple fact of history and economics of the last decade would tell you that economic growth under four per cent is unlikely to effect any reduction at all on the unemployment rate. When you have economic growth at less than four per cent—and these people are talking about economic growth at 3½ per cent—you can be sure of one thing: you will not reduce the number of people who are unemployed; you will increase the number of people in Australia who are unemployed. That is what the budget papers show.

Whilst the unemployment rate is expected to average 8½ per cent, the number of people that the budget papers expect to be unemployed does grow. They also anticipate that there is going to be a reduction in the participation rate. The expectation is that they are going to force people out of the labour market—that is the assumption contained in the budget papers. That prognosis in relation to employment excludes their ideologically driven policies to reduce the public sector, to sack some 30,000 public servants. It also does not include Telstra where we are looking at the prospect of some 20,000 employees of Telstra going over the course of the next couple of years.

So we have a government which is content to see economic growth slide back to 3½ per cent; a government which is content to see unemployment rise; a government which is content to see some 30,000 public servants lose their jobs—we have members of the government who stand here before the people of Australia and say that that is a good budget. The saddest thing about this budget is that jobs are clearly no longer a goal of the Australian government. The Liberal government does not see the creation of jobs as its goal in framing the budget, much less a priority. Indeed, it should be the first priority.

Mr Anderson —It is.

Mr BEVIS —The minister at the table, the Minister for Primary Industries and Energy, says it is their priority. If it is indeed your priority, Minister, then you have failed dismally. You have failed dismally not on my assessment but on your own budget paper's assessment. If, as you say, it is your own No. 1 priority, your own budget papers tell you that you are going to have zero impact on it. You are not going to reduce the unemployment rate at all. So if you have nominated unemployment to still be the No. 1 priority, you had better reshape the budget because your own assessments indicate that you will fail to improve the situation at all.

That is not all that surprising, given that the government and the responsible ministers have refused to set any target whatsoever in relation to unemployment reduction. What level of unemployment satisfies the government, they refuse to say. But if you look at the budget papers, it becomes clear that the government is quite happy to see the current situation continue; unlike the previous Labor government where we had in place substantial labour market programs to ensure long-term unemployed people gain the skills they required to re-enter the work force. This government has no such priority; it has no such goal. This budget cuts a whopping $1.8 billion out of the Labor government's job training schemes that we had in place—a whopping $1,800 million.

The government have virtually destroyed the infrastructure that was in place to assist unemployed people to gain skills and to gain jobs. CES offices are closing. In fact, I have already had two close in my electorate. Last month two CES offices were shut in the federal electorate of Brisbane. One of them, I might say, was in South Brisbane in the heart of an area which has a higher than average level of unemployment. They closed the CES office there last month; they closed the CES office in the city. In the budget we have now learned that they intend to close every CES office and effectively privatise the role that the CES office once played. Along with that, they are quite happy to sack thousands of government workers. That is the greatest failure of this budget.

There are other decisions that deserve condemnation and in the brief time available I wish to refer to some of them. The government's decision to cut child-care funding is going to add somewhere between $14 and $30 per child per week to a family's child-care bill. This is a government with a Prime Minister who often tells us that family is important. Yet those people who have families and need child-care services are about to face a significant increase in the cost of child care.

In this budget, the government have also cynically said that they are providing tax benefits for families. In some areas that is true, but I can tell you that what they give you with the left hand they take back plus a bit more with the right hand. If you happen to have children and require child-care services then you will, as a result of this budget, face an increase of a minimum of $14 and up to $30 a week.

I am particularly annoyed and angry that the government has decided to single out community child-care centres for attack. Operational grants to community child-care centres are to be abolished by this budget. That will directly result in an extra charge for parents of at least $14 per child per week. If you have two children in a community child-care centre, the minimum cost to you will be $28 a week extra.

I have had a number of meetings with parents and administrators in community child-care centres in my electorate. Their estimate is that it will be closer to $28 or $30 per child and not $14. If you have two children under five years of age in care it is more than likely that you will be faced with a bill of between $50 and $60 per week on top of the charges you currently face.

Community child care is deliberately selected by many parents because it provides them with an opportunity to be directly involved in the administration of the care and the centre. It is an open environment. For ideological reasons this government has decided to single out community child care, to impose that burden upon them and to assist the private child-care providers in this process. That is a cruel decision.

The cut in tertiary places is going to especially impact upon Queensland where growth places were to be provided. I found it a bit galling to hear some government members in Queensland claim as a great result the decision in this budget to fund some additional tertiary places in Queensland. It is true that additional tertiary places will be funded in Queensland, but there will be 3,000 fewer than we were going to fund—3,000 fewer than the forward estimates would have funded.

The simple fact is that, no matter how the Liberal propagandists want to twist it and no matter what sort of spin the PR people want to put on it, next year in Queensland there will be 3,000 fewer student places for young Queensland school leavers. That is an attack on Queensland. It is ironic because there was no state in the country that swung more to the Liberal and National parties at the last election than Queensland. What reward did those Queensland voters get for that? They got a slit from ear to ear if they were looking to do tertiary education. There will be 3,000 fewer places for Queensland. That is the Liberal government's thank you to the Queensland electorate that overwhelmingly decided to vote conservative.

Across-the-board HECS charges are to increase making it harder for low- and middle-income families to see their children go to university. The increase is bad enough—and other people have spoken about that; and I may comment on that in the debate when it comes up tomorrow—but I want to comment on the nasty twist in the way in which they have structured it.

The government are for the first time introducing a graded basis for HECS that is simply elitist. They are determining to charge people extra money for doing particular courses. The charge rate is not based on the cost of the course you are doing, it is based on how much money you will make after you graduate. There can be nothing more elitist than that.

The simple fact is that, what you are doing—it may not be wittingly, it may be unwittingly—is ensuring that access to training for wealthy occupations will be restricted to wealthy kids. To put it simply, if you want to become a lawyer or a doctor then you had better have a mummy or a daddy who is a lawyer or a doctor. They are the ones who will be able to afford to get you into those high income professions. It is elitist and wrong and the government should be condemned for it.

One of the other more obscure decisions which I found intriguing with the tertiary sector is the cut to Austudy, but particularly the decision to increase the independent living age. It has been raised to 25 years in this budget—a retrograde step. That means that if you are 24 years of age and you want a tertiary education then the Liberal Party thinks that you should still be living with mummy and daddy and mummy and daddy should be able to pay. Your parents' income is going to continue to be assessed as the basis of your eligibility for Austudy.

It gets worse. If you start a course below the age of 25 your parental income is assessed not just when you are 24, it is assessed for the remainder of that course of study. If at the age of 24 you enrol for law, medicine, arts, science or anything else, at the age of 27, when you are still at university, the Liberal Party thinks you should still be living with mummy and daddy. The parental income will still apply to you when you are 27 years old.

That is not fanciful, particularly in relation to medicine. If, perchance, someone from a low-income family does manage to get into medicine—it is considered as a second degree course—it means that people will be commencing that course no earlier than 21 or 22 years of age and it is quite possible that people will be starting medicine at the age of 23 or 24. When they are 28 years old the Liberal Party says, `No, you are not living independently, mummy and daddy are still paying your way.' That is fine if mummy and daddy happen to be rich. It is not too good if you come from an ordinary working class family.

This budget, as the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley) said, is one for people who are not old, who are not sick, and who do not have children. It is contemptuously unfair. It helps the privileged become more privileged. Worse though, rather than leave just the less well-off alone, rather than ignore those in less fortunate positions—wrong as that would be—it actually increases the burden on those ordinary Australians and on disadvantaged Australians.

Much of these changes were not put to the people of Australia. They are not decisions that the government could claim any mandate for. What is more, there is no economic need for this harsh budget. (Time expired)