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Monday, 26 May 2003
Page: 14955

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (8:25 PM) —I rise this evening to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004, which seeks to appropriate some $40 billion to consolidated revenue for the ordinary annual service of government. In doing so, I point out that this appropriation is exceptionally important because it actually goes to the day-to-day operations of our nation. It is also a statement of the government's priorities over the next financial year and ensuing years. That is exceptionally important, because we should never forget that what we are talking about tonight is not government money but taxpayers' money.

The Australian government is entrusted with directing that money in the best interests of all Australians. In essence, through the budget process it makes a very public statement about its priorities. The responsibility of government is to ensure that these resources deliver the services and infrastructure that will improve the opportunities and wellbeing of all Australians and those we assist beyond our shores in more disadvantaged nations.

I contend this evening that the Howard government has failed this test and, in doing so, it has failed to establish, for our community and for future generations, priorities in tune with the needs and aspirations of Australia in the 21st century. It is very clearly not a nation-building budget; it is a nation-cringing budget. When we look back through Australia's history—and we are not an old country in terms of settlement, beyond Indigenous settlement—each generation of Australians has had a responsibility to future generations to live in a sustainable way. There is a requirement and an obligation as a nation to maintain and improve our infrastructure and services, and to protect and improve our health, education and environment.

I believe that this budget fails those basic community expectations in the determination of the government's priorities, as expressed in Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 and the Treasurer's speech. That raises at the outset the important issue of health care and the very clear endeavour by the Howard government to destroy Medicare. The Howard government is using this budget as an excuse to destroy what many of us believe is the best health care system in the world: Medicare. Instead of building on the strengths of that great system, this budget is about demolishing it and moving us all towards a flawed, second-rate, Americanised health care system that does not care for all Australians.

The facts speak for themselves. Bulk-billing will effectively end for two out of three Australians. The majority of families will have to check their wallets to decide whether they can seek medical help, regardless of how ill their family members may be. If they cannot afford to take their kids to the doctor, the Howard government then wants to slug them with a 30 per cent increase in the cost of essential medicines. Our public hospitals would be stretched to breaking point under this government's health regime by forcing people out of the doctor's surgery and into the emergency department of the nearest hospital, such as the hospitals that the constituents in my electorate depend on: the Northern Hospital or the Austin Repat Hospital.

The budget papers also confirm that the Howard government has taken the knife to our public health care system by cutting some $918 million in funding over the next four years. By taking money out of the public health system to pay for a new system—which will put further pressure on the public health system—we will have, in essence, a double whammy of pain for public hospitals. Whichever way you look, the Howard government is committed to ripping apart the health care system instead of investing in the health and welfare of Australians at large. It is basically undermining a system that has clearly stood the test of time.

When you go beyond the issue of health, you start to confront one of the other fundamentals of life: education. This budget is premised on the provision of educational opportunity in Australia only for the well-off in the community. The budget spells out very clearly an end to affordable higher education in Australia. I believe, and many of the electors of Batman also believe, that education is a smart investment for Australia. It is an investment, because it is about our future. It is about our skilling and our capacity to compete domestically and internationally. It is about jobs and prosperity for Australians. Open access to education and training, therefore, is a fundamental requirement of Australia. It is the best way to maximise return and capitalise on the opportunities our people can garner.

The problem is that, through this budget, the Howard government wants to restrict opportunities for education and training to those with a pocketful of cash or, perhaps more correctly, those whose parents have a pocketful of cash—therefore crushing the benefits to be gained by our nation from making sure people get the best educational opportunity in life irrespective of their family background and irrespective of whether their parents have high-earning jobs or struggle from week to week to look after their children. Look at the increase in HECS. You can very clearly see that the government has one objective in life: to look after the well-off in the community rather than ensuring that all in the community get the same opportunities in life. HECS fees will rise by up to 30 per cent, and half of the already limited university places will be reserved for those who will pay the astronomical up-front fees.

I might say in passing that, in essence, this is about the Prime Minister changing opportunities for people to attend universities. I can recall the Prime Minister over the last couple of years having a lot to say about queues in the debate about migration and the Tampa. He went out of his way to stress the fact that Australians believe in an orderly way of life and that they actually see migration as being based on a requirement for people to make an application to come to Australia—in essence to join a queue—and be processed in an orderly way. It is strange that we now find that in terms of education, despite what he might have said on the immigration debate, the Prime Minister is putting in place a system which is effectively about enabling the wealthy in the community to jump the queue for educational opportunities. There is no longer a queue for educational opportunity in Australia; it is a case of university degrees being up for sale.

A university degree or an opportunity to pursue higher education only goes to those in the community whose parents can afford to pay. That is what it is about. People who can afford to pay will jump the queue and those from more difficult economic circumstances, who are unable to take on an expected debt of far higher proportions than any fair system would provide, will fall to the bottom of the queue and will be unable to attend university and achieve a fair opportunity in life through pursuing tertiary education. And, even if people are lucky enough to secure a place at a university and are prepared to take the risk of deferring payment of their fees, they will then graduate with a HECS debt of a minimum of $40,000 or more and find themselves paying the same rate of interest on the government's loan as they would pay for a home loan. This system is condemned by a great majority of Australians, and so it ought to be. This is not the higher education system that Labor planned for when it introduced HECS; nor is it the higher education system that Australia needs in the 21st century. It is not the Australian way.

I also remind the House that, when you move beyond health and education, you very quickly come to the conclusion that this is not a budget for the battlers; not on your life. It does not go anywhere towards assisting the battlers in the Australian community who the Prime Minister likes to talk about from time to time. On top of gutting health and making higher education opportunity more difficult, the government is asking Australia to support a budget that delivers only to the top end of town.

Let us take, for example, the issue of multinational corporations. In this budget, the government proposes $300 million in tax cuts to head the way of multinational corporations. Superannuation tax cuts are to be handed to the top few per cent of income earners at a time when the so-called battlers are seeing their superannuation accounts decline because of difficulties in the international share market and local investment opportunities. But the government do not go out of their way to assist those people; they go out of their way to give the highest superannuation earners an even bigger superannuation benefit by reducing the taxation on their benefits.

We then see the Howard government continue to stand back and reward company executives with tax subsidies for their massive bonuses and golden handshakes—an issue reinforced last week by reports about the payout to former BHP Billiton Chief Executive Officer Mr Gilbertson, another mate of the Howard government. The Treasurer thinks he can hide these pay-offs to the big end of town—after all, these are the people who give the huge and generous donations to the secret election accounts that the coalition so carefully guard. Having rewarded those people for those huge donations, the Treasurer is trying to suggest that there are a few perks for the ordinary Australian citizen. He thinks he can hide those perks to the top end of town behind a $4 a week tax cut for the majority of Australians, a tax cut that the Australian community has seen correctly for what it is: the smallest tax cut in the history of Australia from the highest taxing government in the history of Australia.

I actually look at my electorate. A recent report into poverty by the Darebin City Council sends a wake up call to the Howard Government. The findings of that report show that the basic structural causes of poverty are prevalent in Darebin, that the gap between rich and poor is growing and that, unfortunately, socioeconomic disadvantage is becoming entrenched in my local community. That community is not far from the Melbourne CBD. I say, as a range of my constituents have said to me over the week and a half since the Treasurer brought down the budget, that this budget does nothing to address their significant and major concerns, which go to accessing essential services and trying to overcome some of the disadvantages that exist in their local community.

I will now turn to some of the problems with respect to my own shadow ministerial portfolio responsibilities. I note that a cruel hoax is being perpetrated by the Howard government on the people of regional Australia. There are a number of disadvantaged regional communities around Australia. For a long time they have been promised a better deal—that we are finally going to do something to remove the difficulties that exist in those regional communities. I actually expected some major announcements in this budget for those struggling regional communities. So what did I get? Firstly, an amalgamation of regional programs—a proposal sponsored by the Labor Party at the last election. But then we go to the detail, beyond the simple statement about an amalgamation of regional programs.

I remind the House that those regional programs, which have diminished in amount since 1996, are more and more being used to pork-barrel marginal Liberal Party seats and, more often than that, National Party seats. When I go to the detail I find that regional Australia will lose $17 million in the next financial year and that the funding commitment to regional Australia has been short-changed by the announcements of the recent budget to the tune of—guess what?—not just $17 million in the next financial year but $102 million over the next three financial years. This is a 25 per cent cut to regional programs over a period of three years.

I believe that regional Australia deserves better than that. On all the indicators, including employment, health, education, assistance to improve the roads—you name it—regional Australia is doing it tough. There is no justification, be it remote regional Australia or the outer suburbs of the major capital cities, for this government to reduce the commitment to assist those struggling communities. The end result of these budget cuts is that regional Australia will again lose economic opportunities because of the lost opportunities for a development embodied in the announcements of the Howard government in its budget processes.

That takes me to the issue of AusLink, the question of the Ansett ticket tax and the ongoing decision by the Howard government to rip off ordinary Australians—the travelling public. Our transport infrastructure is in a bad state of disrepair. There is $870 million to upgrade the railway system in Australia. I contend that it is about time the Howard government told the truth with respect to that proposed investment in railway infrastructure. In 1998, the Howard government promised to spend $250 million on our tracks over four years, but less than $100 million of that promise has been spent. This is in spite of a report, released by the Minister for Transport and Regional Services two years ago, that said we need to spend $507 million to make any significant improvement to rail freight in Australia. The budget papers contain the furphy that over $800 million is to be spent. There is no additional money and there is no indication at all about where that $870 million will come from. It is one huge white lie to try to convince the Australian community that the Howard government is committed to the improvement of our rail freight system when it is not committed at all.

There is a clear indication in the budget processes that the ticket tax will continue for another 12 months. It is not only the Ansett ticket tax. We have further cost imposts not only on the aviation industry but also on the airline industry. I want to say to the Ansett workers and their families this evening that the budget processes continue to say to the Australian public that the ticket tax will stay in place to assist you. I know fully that none of that money is going to the Ansett workers; it is going to the government coffers for the purposes of their own pork-barrelling activities. The budget contains further increases in costs for the aviation industry—an industry struggling at the moment because of the threats of terrorism and SARS. There are also further cost imposts on the maritime industry for the purposes of changes in maritime security.

I think it is about time the Howard government was exposed for what it is. It is a government consumed with its own self-interest. The budget priorities set out in Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004 do not meet the needs and aspirations of Australia in the 21st century. It is time the Howard government got the message that it is its responsibility to govern for all Australians, not a few of its mates. Australians correctly expect that they will have their taxes used to expand opportunities for all—not a narrow, privileged minority in Australia. They want their taxes to be correctly used to look after their personal health, not the political health of the coalition government. Australians want their taxes spent on building the nation, not on tearing it down.

I therefore support the second reading amendment moved by the opposition. It correctly calls on the House to condemn the budget for failing to deliver basic services such as health, education, and services in my own portfolio areas of regional development, transport and tourism. The Howard government stands condemned for a budget that delivers neither any vision or commitment to nation building nor a basic commitment to the provision of services that Australians expect in return for the taxes that they pay. Australians are hardworking people and they are prepared to pay their taxes, but they also expect a safe and secure future through the normal Australian budget processes. That is why Australia needs a Labor government: a government with a vision, as spelt out in the Leader of the Opposition's budget response—a government that would govern for all Australians rather than a minority of mates. (Time expired)