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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15430

Ms PLIBERSEK (12:04 PM) —I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004. In 2002, the Prime Minister said to a joint meeting of the US Congress:

Like you I see family life at the heart of a nation's existence. Not only does the family nurture and educate our children but it provides emotional anchorage for all of us as we travel through life. The strength of the family of course goes beyond the spiritual and the emotional. United, caring families are the best social welfare system mankind has ever devised.

Given that statement, you would have to ask why this government has brought in a budget that makes life so much more difficult for ordinary families in this country. Of course, it comes after many years of attacking families, and it should not surprise us. But the difference between the rhetoric of the government and what it is prepared to commit to when it comes to dollars in the budget still startles me.

We hear a lot of spin from the Howard government when it comes to committing valuable resources and budget dollars. This government is, at best, silent and, at worst, negligent. We know that Australian families are doing it tough, because they have faced the seven highest tax years in Australian history. Foreign debt has doubled to $354 billion. Credit card debt—and this is very significant for families—has tripled to $22 billion. Australian families owe nearly $600 million to the Commonwealth government in family tax benefit debts, with over 670,000 families now owing an average debt of $850 because of the inadequacy of the government in introducing this system of payment of family tax benefit.

Bank fees have doubled since 1997. Australians are saving just 3c in every dollar they earn, compared with 8c under Labor. Average monthly mortgage repayments are at a 13-year high. Members on the opposite side continually talk about interest rates and how frightened ordinary people are of interest rate rises. Of course they are. But the reality is that they are paying more now for their mortgages than they ever have in the past. It takes 8½ years wages to buy an average Australian home, which is 27 months more wages than it took just seven years ago. Of course, in my electorate the situation is much worse because of the high cost of housing.

This government's policies are hitting families hard, and the only response from the government is to give a measly $4 tax cut to people on average wages. If you look at a family earning $20,000 a year—and there are a lot of them around—they are receiving a tax cut of only $1.63 a week. Knowing what those families face in additional costs, we really have to ask ourselves what that $1.63 a week is going to buy them. Average families are being paid, in total, $725 million less in family tax benefits. That means that the average family will be receiving a benefit of $400 less than the government had previously promised.

When families get their $4, their $1.63 or whatever it is in their pay packets, it is hardly going to make up for the fact that they are paying more for essential medicines, more to see their GP and more to educate their children. The tax changes will still leave average families paying more than 60c in each additional dollar earned in tax and reduced benefits. You also have to remember that families are now faced with the prospect of starting to save $44 a week from the time of their child's birth to pay for the university education they hope to obtain for that child. Andrew McCallum of ACOSS said:

This is an upside down budget. It takes from the poor to pay for hand-outs to the well off ... Budget cuts will undermine the health and financial security of up to 3 million poor and vulnerable Australians, especially the disabled, the sick and the unemployed.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence responded to the budget by saying:

Changes to health and education in the 2003-2004 Federal Budget risk further entrenching the growing gap between rich and poor ... And changes to Medicare and higher education are likely to create a user-pays system that impacts most on those on low incomes.

If we look at health in greater detail, we see that there is indeed a crisis in our national health care system. The rates of bulk-billing have decreased by 11 percentage points over the last seven years, with only 69.9 per cent of GP services now being bulk-billed. It was 80 per cent under Labor. The member for Macquarie turns his nose up at a rate of 80 per cent, but I know that most Australians would be very happy to see a return to a rate of 80 per cent for bulk-billing.

More than 10 million fewer GP visits were bulk-billed this year compared with when John Howard first came to office. What a shocking figure that is. The average cost of seeing a doctor who does not bulk-bill is now $12.78, up five per cent since the Howard government came to office in 1996, and there are a great deal fewer doctors who do bulk-bill. Australian families are now paying $123 million a year more for visits to their local GPs since the Howard government came to office. AMA President, Kerryn Phelps, was very concerned about the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and she said:

We're looking at massive cuts to the PBS of $2 billion which will hit the sickest and the poorest—people with chronic illnesses will be particularly affected as will people with young children who are often at the doctor's.

The Australian Division of General Practice applauded Labor's proposals in response to the government and said:

... a substantial increase in patient rebates and no requirement of the GPs `opt in' to an agreement about bulk billing are positive elements of the ALP's package.

There is an alternative to what the government has proposed. What is really interesting about the government's rhetoric on Medicare is the loud trumpeting of the $917 million rescue package for Medicare, as they like to call it, but not even a whisper of the $918 million that they have cut from public hospitals. Further incentives will encourage GPs to stop bulk-billing. In my electorate, I am very lucky that we still have very high bulk-billing rates. It is an inner city electorate, and there are high numbers of doctors who do bulk-bill. You have to admit that the government's proposal is an incentive to them to start charging copayments. Why wouldn't they when the government makes it so easy for them? The result of all this is to make Australian families pay three times for their medical attention. They pay once through their Medicare levy, once when they go to see a doctor and once through their private health insurance.

If you look at education in more detail, we know that over $5 billion has been gutted from universities and from student income support since 1996. Australian families are now paying $900 million more for the cost of educating their children at university than when the Howard government was first elected. There are 20,000 fewer publicly funded university places than in 1996. Student fees have increased 85 per cent since 1996. The Minister for Education, Science and Training carries on all the time about how elitist it is of us to complain about funding for university education. But, on his own figures yesterday, he admitted that almost half of all Australians see the inside of a university at some stage, either when they first leave school or, in many cases, later in life when they are retraining or studying for a new career.

Fewer than three per cent of Australian students see the inside of a category 1 private school, and there is no controversy about the fact that those private schools, in total, now receive more funding than universities. Students are now paying 40 per cent of the cost of their university education, not 25 per cent as the government continually claims. The NTEU says that contributions under backing Australia's future will increase to 44 per cent, and that, if these current budget measures are enacted, students will pay 56 per cent of their university education, which is the highest student contribution anywhere in the world. We are told that American universities are very expensive for students to get into. On average, Australian students pay more for their university education than American students or students anywhere in the developed world. Daniel Kyriacou from the National Union of Students said:

Proposals to expand the number of places for students who are able to jump the queue by paying full-fees of up to $90,000 sends the message that money is more important in accessing higher education than academic ability. Even the Government's proposed new HECS fees of up to $40,000 for some degrees will put a university education further out of reach for potential students from low and middle income Australian families.

So what has the government done? The government has increased HECS fees by up to 30 per cent and raised the repayment threshold to $30,000 after dramatically lowering it when they came into government. But remember that, under Labor's original proposal, the HECS repayment threshold in the years 2005-06 would have been $39,000. So the threshold will still be dramatically lower after these changes than it would have been if they had not tampered with it in the first place.

The minister is so fond of carrying on about vocational education and TAFE funding, but there is not one extra cent in this budget for TAFE. The incredible hypocrisy of a minister who talks all the time about how Labor does not care about kids and vocational education and TAFE is phenomenal when the government has not put a single extra cent into the budget for the technical and further education sector. This budget creates 444 places for doctors and nurses. That is terrific. We have heard a lot of fanfare about that. But it is well short of the 800 places that this government's own review into nursing said were necessary. It is, of course, prepared to commit $20 million towards creating a new bureaucracy to track students. You really have to ask about the priorities there.

We have heard a lot recently about child protection because of the former Governor-General's dramatic failures in this area. We heard the Prime Minister say in response to questions about a royal commission that he would rather take the $100 million to $140 million a royal commission would cost and instead spend it on child protection and early intervention. I actually looked forward to seeing something in this budget for child protection. I thought that, given the current environment, the government could not go past doing something for children in this country, given all the media focus and the unprecedented public attention on child abuse, but there is nothing. The $4 million for child protection is the same $4 million that the government underspent by $500,000 in last year's budget. I cannot understand how you could not spend a puny amount like $4 million on child protection, given what we know about the needs in this country, given that we know the large number of children that face physical or sexual abuse in their home or in some other institution.

It is the same with regard to domestic violence. This Commonwealth government has committed such a small amount of money to domestic violence—$16.5 million. That is a lot of money if you are an individual with $16.5 million sitting in your bank account. But, when you are talking about a nation of 20 million people, $16.5 million is not a lot of money to devote to an important area like domestic violence. This government is able to take $10.1 million out of that $16.5 million and spend it on the terrorism fridge magnet. How can it be that it cannot spend even the pathetic amount of money that is dedicated to these important areas?

Look at the baby bonus. That has been underspent as well. Why is that? Failure of advertising? It is certainly not that families do not need help when they are having babies. We have heard so much over the last few years and particularly over the last few months about paid maternity leave. Again, I thought this budget was an excellent opportunity for the government to introduce paid maternity leave. We know the government's own Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, has made a very strong recommendation in favour of paid maternity leave, yet there is nothing allocated to it in this budget. On AM radio in 2002, the Prime Minister said:

Paid maternity leave has a legitimate claim in the debate, there is merit in it and we're looking at it.

At a CEDA speech in November 2002, the Prime Minister said:

Our key policy goal in this area is to facilitate choice for families and not to mandate particular behaviour. We need to respect the different priorities that individual families have and the different choices they want to make.

You would think that that would be a terrific opening for paid maternity leave. You would think that that was softening up the community for a really good announcement on paid maternity leave—not a cent, not a priority for this government. We hear a lot of rhetoric as well about the welfare to work initiatives. Tony Abbott, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, said:

The government is committed to a simpler, fairer welfare system with built in incentives for people to find work ... as a counterpoint to the problems of the wider world, providing a fair go for struggling Australian families is more urgent than ever ...

Certainly it is. I agree that it is. I am sure everyone on this side of the chamber agrees that it is. We could have expected something in the budget to help families struggling from welfare to work—no, nothing. According to the Brotherhood of St Laurence, it appears that $135 million over four years announced by the Treasurer for disability employment services comes at the cost of moving 90,000 people over four years from the disability support pension to the Newstart allowance.

I know, Mr Deputy Speaker Wilkie, that you would have experienced the same thing in your electorate office as I have in my electorate office with people coming in in an absolute flat panic about these proposed changes to disability support payments. People are absolutely terrified about what it means for their ability to make ends meet. Again, when you consider protections for the weakest members of our community, on top of all these changes for people on disability support pensions just look at what the government is proposing to do to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. It is going to absolutely gut the commission and make it impossible for the commission to appear in legal proceedings without the permission of the minister. So the minister will be the one to say, `Sure, we agree that you need to represent a client against the government.' It is absolutely fanciful to imagine that the excellent advocacy work that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has been able to do at times in the past will happen under these proposed changes. It cannot happen.

Look at the cuts to legal aid of 35 per cent since 1996. Mr Deputy Speaker Wilkie, you know the situation when people come to your electorate office because they cannot afford legal aid. Whole areas have been wiped out of legal aid, and these people are beside themselves. They are appearing in the court system unrepresented and wasting the time of the courts. In the end there is no saving, because the court system is so much slower, and the results people are getting are not fair.

Look at child care, where 30,000 children are unable to get child-care places outside school hours. This government is spending $800 less per child-care place than in 1996. How can we provide quality child care on those sorts of figures? Funds for children with special needs have been frozen. Look at the area of mental health. Unfortunately, we do not discuss mental health nearly enough in this parliament. We know that at least 25 per cent of health related disabilities in our society are mental health disorders. One in five people are affected by a mental illness at some time in their lives, yet we spend less than four per cent of our total Commonwealth health funding on mental health services. Australia spends far less on mental health services than New Zealand, Canada, the US, the UK and Ireland. For example, over eight per cent of Ireland's health spending is on mental health services.

The Mental Health Council of Australia released a national report last year called Out of Hospital, Out of Mind. The report pointed out the incredible needs in this area and how families are just left alone to cope as best they can when they have a family member who experiences a mental illness. The government could have responded in this budget to the calls in this report, but it has not done so. It has not earmarked any extra funding in this area. There is only so much that state governments can do. The federal government has to do more than pump out glossy brochures in this area.

On the issue of the environment, despite the Prime Minister's talk about salinity, in the year 2000 he committed an extra $1.4 billion to the national action plan on salinity but he has clawed it back. Spending on salinity and water quality is going to be cut by more than $60 million over the next two years, making a total of $287 million cut from the national action plan. Honestly, this is an area where there is a crying need. We have heard the Prime Minister speak about land clearing as well. He has promised at both elections to do something about land clearing, but he has done nothing. We are committed to halting large-scale land clearing, and we have said so in our budget reply.

On the matter of alternative fuels, this budget is also a disaster. And Senator Alston is also out there telling the community that, if the ABC do not act as the propaganda wing of the federal government, they are going to have their funding cut. This government has come up with a budget that is a disaster for the poorest people in our community and for the middle class. It passes more benefits to the wealthy than to any other part of the Australian community.