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Tuesday, 3 June 2003
Page: 15858

Mr LEO McLEAY (5:04 PM) —I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004. We have had seven years of the Howard government and now we have another very uninspiring group of appropriation bills. The honourable member for Indi runs out of the chamber; she obviously has to go and do some third-rate press conference where she can get all pumped up again. I think it is rather a shame that the honourable member for Indi would not allow my friend the member for Franklin to intervene in the debate here in the Main Committee. I understand from all the government members who have been spruiking this new proposal that that is what happened. My dear friend the honourable member for Franklin wanted to obtain from the honourable member for Indi her view on what had happened with the wine equalisation tax, because she did not mention it at all in her speech. No doubt her predecessor, Mr Lieberman, the member for Indi prior to her, would have taken a much stronger line with the government, because he was a man who was very, very interested in the wine industry—as was his predecessor from the National Party. The honourable member for Indi might take note of what her predecessors said and do her best to try and promote the small wineries in her electorate.

I have been a member of this place for over 20 years and in this time I have participated in many debates on appropriation bills. I have to say that the budgets of this current government have been among the most ordinary and pedestrian that I have ever experienced. Even when at first glance it appears that there might be something interesting in a budget, closer examination shows that there is not much there. In fact, there was so little in this budget that the member for Indi had to start talking about the Victorian budget. She could not think up enough things to say about the budget that her own Treasurer bought down recently.

On budget night it looked as if the Treasurer had succeeded in surprising everyone with a tax cut but, when the excitement settled down, what did we see? A tiny tax cut for individual taxpayers—barely enough for a milkshake and a sandwich, to borrow from a certain government minister's comments about the amount of money. I noted that even when the minister was making the comments in another context—that is, she was interested in a cut in welfare payments rather than a tax cut—she was talking about a similar amount of money; the grand sum of $4 or $5. But Senator Vanstone was wrong about it being barely enough for a milkshake and a sandwich; it is barely enough for a sandwich nowadays. Obviously Senator Vanstone and those government ministers who are on the gravy train do not have to buy their own sandwiches nowadays. If you went down to the parliamentary cafeteria here, I doubt you could get a sandwich and a milkshake for $4—so you can forget about having anything left over to buy a milkshake with which to wash down the sandwich. What the government gives so generously in the form of a tax cut it is happy to describe as quite insignificant—as Senator Vanstone has done—when it chooses to take it away from certain groups. How cynical is this government and how outrageous it is that it behaves in these ways. It is insulting to the people of Australia, particularly to those less well-off people in electorates like mine.

Since the budget was announced—the dust has settled a little and everyone has had a chance to look more carefully at what was in the Treasurer's speech and the accompanying documentation—the initial excitement about the $4 or $5 has subsided. The proposed changes to Medicare and higher education are proving to be much more important to people than a measly, insignificant tax cut. Even the tax cut was not fair: ordinary income earners got $4 or $5 but those on over $75,000 got nearly three times that much. It just goes to show where the government's priorities are.

Polls have shown recently that the majority of the people surveyed would prefer increased spending on services—that is, better health and education services—to small tax cuts for individual taxpayers. Do not get me wrong; a small tax cut is better than no tax cut. If you are on $300 or $400 a week then a small tax cut is better than none and is certainly better than an increase in taxes, which we are seeing from this government in other areas. But if we had a choice between a small tax cut on the one hand and better health and education services on the other it is pretty clear that most voters would prefer better services.

It is encouraging that people have not allowed themselves to be conned by the government in this regard. The tax cut issue has not stopped people seeing the other parts of the budget for what they are. While the government has striven to put forward all its proposals in a positive way, we are now seeing that many of them are not quite what they appeared to be at first. In fact, it is a feature of this budget—aided by the mysteries of accrual accounting in many instan--ces—that what we thought we were getting, and what the ministers responsible might have liked us to think that we were getting, is not necessarily what the government is planning to deliver.

One of the things that has struck me about individual members of this government and their attitude to their fellow Australians is their hypocrisy. Many members of the government—and, indeed, many people on my side of the House, including my friend sitting next to me, the member for Franklin, had the benefit of fee-free tertiary education and a period of a much freer health care service in the 1970s. But the government now have the cheek to not only impose extra financial costs on those who are currently struggling to obtain an education and/or maintain their health but also claim that they are improving the system and actually doing the right thing by the people of Australia. They do not even have the good grace to acknowledge the financial burden the government's policies impose on people. The government seem to think it is an appropriate thing to do. They are shameless, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott—and I must say that you are one of the shameless people with them.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. B.C. Scott)—Order!

Mr LEO McLEAY —You are probably less shameless than the rest of them!

Mr LEO McLEAY —That is not a reflection on the chair; it is a statement of fact. The government is shameless.

Mr Baird —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. The member for Watson has reflected upon the chair. I would ask that he be asked to withdraw that comment in relation to you.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Watson knows what he said, and I would ask him to withdraw that reflection upon the chair.

Mr LEO McLEAY —Indeed, Mr Deputy Speaker. You know and the Hansard reflects what I said. I said the government are shameless. If you want to disavow yourself as being a member of the government, that is fine. It would be easier if the government accepted the honesty and admitted that their policies were burdensome for people but were necessary for the economy and for other demonstrated and justifiable reasons. But they do not present them in this way at all. They present them as if they are a privilege for Australians to have to pay ever increasing amounts for their education and that of their children and for their health and that of their families.

We on this side know that what will happen is that fewer people will have access to higher education and adequate health care as a result of this budget. In my view, access to education and health care is essential to the future of Australia. There is not much point in anything else if you are uneducated and in poor health. It does not matter much what the balance of payments is or what exports look like for Australia if your individual quality of life is poor and you have no hope of improving it. In fact, there is not much hope for Australia in any sphere if the population is undereducated and in poor health. The only way Australia will progress as a country is if we are a well-educated knowledge nation and have a healthy population to underlie all our other endeavours.

I believe the government has taken a very short-term view and that that is reflected in this budget. It is not a budget that is forward looking; it is a miserable budget. While the budget has all the features of a short-term view, it will take some time for the full detrimental effects to be felt. By then Australia will be in dire straits and it will cost future governments a great deal of money to bring Australia back to the sort of society we should be able to enjoy—a society where education and good health, and equality of access to those essentials, are valued and not made more difficult to attain.

It is the poorest people who are going to find it more difficult to have access to education and health because of the increased costs that are going to be imposed by this budget. Those who are rich and financially advantaged will not have a problem—indeed, they will even get a big-ger tax cut—because they will always have the money to pay for these things. The poor and the less well off, the financially disadvantaged, will find it increasingly difficult to obtain a good education and decent health care. The odd scholarship offered here and there is not go-ing to make all that much difference to the majority of those who are seeking higher education.

When you look at health care, you see that the revised bulk-billing arrangements are not going to help most people and will have the effect of raising even higher the cost of health care for those who are not bulk-billed. Let us be clear about this. The government has always wanted to destroy Medicare and with this budget it is going a long way towards succeeding. Each time the government makes changes to Medicare, it dilutes the service. The great dream of universal health care—as the member for Indi quoted Senator Grimes as saying when we introduced Medicare—that is, everyone's right regardless of ability to pay, has just about disappeared.

Instead we are just increasingly complicating the system where once we had a relatively simple system, which the consumers—that is, all of us—definitely preferred. Now no-one seems to be happy: doctors, patients and private insurers all have some complaint about the system.

Mr Baird —We are happy.

Mr LEO McLEAY —Instead of keeping it simple, the government have eroded the simplicity by making changes that have effectively destroyed the essence of Medicare as it was originally envisaged when introduced by our Labor government in the 1970s. Its features have been chipped away and we are now left with a messy, complicated system of health care that no-one is happy with. The members opposite say that they are happy, but they are probably happy because they want to destroy Medicare. They are probably really happy because that is what they are achieving. The member for Cook ought to be willing to go and say that to his constituents.

One of the most noticeable features of this budget was the things that it did not include. Despite promising in previous years to look at simplifying superannuation, the government have not done much about it. Every now and then, the government fiddle around with aspects of superannuation but, far from simplifying it, their fiddling about has the opposite effect and makes it more complicated. What people want from superannuation is pretty simple: they are happy to invest in it but what they want in return is financial security in their retirement years. They do not want to be confused by the myriad competing schemes all vying for their investment. They do not want to be penalised for investing in superannuation by losing other benefits that those who have not invested in superannuation enjoy. They do not want to have to be-come financial experts in superannuation themselves in order to understand what it all means.

Superannuants are mostly, by definition, among the oldest people in our community. They have considerable life experience but they are not financial experts. It has got to the stage where you need to be a financial expert these days to understand superannuation and be confident that you are not disadvantaging yourself by the decisions you are required to make. I am sure everyone would welcome simplification of superannuation.

It is enlightening to look back at some of the statements the Treasurer has made about superannuation in the past. He has previously acknowledged its complicated nature. For example, in May 2000 the Treasurer said:

I think it needs to be simplified. I think it's too complicated. We've got too many rules, too many conflicting rules, too many different taxation treatments. I think it's beyond the ken of most people to understand it.

I can only agree with him, but it is a great pity that he has done nothing about it. Despite his own claims to the contrary, the government are the highest taxing government Australia has ever had. Families are taking on more responsibility for funding what used to be core public services such as health and education. But what are their taxes being spent on—handouts to farmers? The government do not even give handouts to farmers anymore, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, and I am sure you are pretty unhappy about that—unless of course you live in the minister for agriculture's milk zone. You get a pretty good handout there, but it costs consumers 11c a litre on their milk. So you rob one to pay the other. It is a little bit obvious that the government just want to be the highest taxing government Australia has seen, and you do not get much back from them. There must be something wrong with a system where more is being extracted in taxes but less is being expended on services that once used to be universal.

One other program I would like to mention this evening is the baby bonus. It is a good example of how the government offers everything and complicates it so you do not get anything. When the government introduced this last year, it was hyped as something that was terrific, and everyone who had a child was going to do well out of it. But it has not been the wonderful program that the government promised. Like superannuation, it is complicated and not all that helpful. That is hardly surprising: it is linked with tax, and any tax measures—even if described as tax relief—always seem to be too tricky by half. It has been a consistent feature of this government that it promises a wonderful program of assistance to particular groups and then the program, after it has been introduced, turns out to be not nearly as wonderful as it was portrayed. With this government, the devil is really in the detail.

It is almost as if the government prides itself on appearing to be generous, tricking people into expecting a benefit and then not delivering because of the complicated way in which it sets up the details of the program. I am just wondering how long it will be before we hear the Minister for Finance and Administration telling us we are going to get $20 million over 20 years. Some years ago governments used to talk about providing money for a particular financial year. It used to be, for example, $3 million a year, then it became $8 million over three years, and then it became $16 million over 16 years. These days there are tricky accountancy and presentation issues in there.

But, going back to the baby bonus, you would think a baby bonus would be pretty simple to administer. You have a baby and you get the bonus. That is what it sounds like, doesn't it? My good friend from Queensland, the member for Oxley, nods his head and says, `Yes, it does sound like that.' You think that if you have a baby, you can collect the bonus. Simple? Not under this government. You would think it would be simple enough for the farmers to even understand. They understand that you have a calf and you get a benefit—but not with this lot, because the program was linked to the tax system, and not everyone who applied for the bonus received it because the government used it to repay a tax or other debt. It is difficult to imagine a more complicated system.

Perhaps the real idea behind the baby bonus was to create jobs in the taxation department, because the administrative workload must certainly be considerable. What could have been simple has been made complicated, and one suspects that those who could have made use of the bonus are those who probably have missed out. It has probably gone to those who do not need it, probably those who had an accountant. It has certainly not gone to many of those who are in the most need. Again, there was much fanfare about a wonderful program which, down the track, turned out to be not so wonderful at all.

The defence budget is also a source of concern to me. To summarise, the government has paid for the Iraq war at the cost of Australia's long-term defence capability. There is funding for the war but no provision for peacekeeping troops. I am profoundly glad that the war is over—or, should I say, the first phase is over—because I have never been so unhappy about Australia's involvement in a war as I was about this particular engagement. Who is even aware now that Australia was involved, apart from the forces who were deployed there—and the Prime Minister and his colleagues, of course? The only glory we have for ourselves as a result of the whole sorry business is that we are seen as hangers-on to the USA and another target for terrorism, perhaps. We have made no new friends through our involvement, and we have probably drawn unwelcome attention to ourselves in some parts of the world.

But the Prime Minister decided that this was an engagement which was to have Australian involvement and off we went, and the Australian taxpayer had to bear the costs of his decision to involve Australia in a war in the Middle East. It is disgraceful that the gap between rich and poor in this country continues to widen but the Prime Minister can commit us to joining in someone else's argument and make us pay for it as well. We are seeing now that the other part of the coalition of the willing are now asking us to pay for the bombs that we dropped for them. It is just unbelievable. I never actually thought anyone was going to apply user-pays to a war, but now that we have joined someone else's war and used our planes to drop the bombs, after the war they have sent us a bill for millions and millions of dollars of ordnance. Talk about the world going spare! We heard all the reasons for the war and we are all wondering where the weapons of mass destruction are now. Where is Saddam Hussein? What is to be done for the people of Iraq? There remain many issues in this that need resolution.

This is a budget which is disappointing. It is disappointing because of what it does to social programs. It is disappointing because the government has run down our defence forces and not refurbished them. It is disappointing because the government attempts to pretend that it is giving a tax cut when in fact it is saying, `We won't even give you enough for a sandwich and a milkshake,' to quote a senior minister in the government. This is a very, very disappointing budget and, just like those journalists who were embedded in the Gulf War program where they did not get to see much but were pretty much under control, what we are seeing embedded in this budget are aspects of the highest taxing government in Australia's history. It is a government that taxes and taxes and taxes middle- and lower-income earners, gives them a lousy $4 to $5 a week back and says, `You should be grateful.' At the same time, it tells them that they are going to have to pay far more for health, far more for education and far more for those core things that governments should provide. As I said at the beginning, I have seen many budgets and this one is one of the lousiest.