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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29351


Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (12:09 PM) —I rise to speak in the debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2004-2005 and cognate bills. In doing so, I indicate my support for the second reading amendment moved, on behalf of the opposition, by the shadow Treasurer and member for Hotham, Mr Crean. At the outset, I would like to express the sentiments of the second reading amendment, which are clearly aimed at condemning the government for what is a very cynical, election driven budget process—a spending spree which, in essence, is about trying to buy votes in the lead-up to the forthcoming election.

We are talking about a record spending spree of $52 billion over the forward estimates. Despite that expenditure—and this is not just the view of the opposition; many in the community have come to this conclusion—the budget fails to deliver on crucial services for Australians. I am talking about fundamental services which we do not think are adequately catered for in the budget before us today, such as access to bulk-billing, higher education, apprenticeships and a range of other measures that we believe are fundamental to any decent society. For that reason, I contend that the Howard government's ninth budget is a clear reflection of the treatment that has been dished out to the Australian community by the Howard government since its election in March 1996.

Without any doubt, this is a big spending budget. I have been in a range of budget lock-ups over the years. I have been at every budget lock-up since I was elected in March 1996 and at a range of budget lock-ups when I served as president of the ACTU prior to entering parliament. From my point of view, this is a big spending budget; it is unprecedented in Australia's political history. The government is spending $52 billion, yet we have major outstanding issues, including the fundamental delivery of services to people in the Australian community who are crying out for assistance because of the pressure and stress that exists due to the lack of access to services at this time.

More importantly, talking about big spending and budget responsibility, when I think back on all those budgets I have examined in years gone by, it is astonishing to think that, in a mere six weeks—the next six weeks—the government will spend $6 billion. It is almost as if the government has to spend it to create the impression that it has been doing something for families. Yet the truth is that the families you meet in shopping centres—as I do on a regular basis in my electorate of Batman—have quickly come to the conclusion that not only are they being short-changed but this government is taking them for fools by thinking that, with a few incentives, it can stop families from thinking about the damage being done to their local communities by the actions of the Howard government and will change the way they cast their vote at the next election. They have quickly come to the conclusion that the budget processes of the Howard government—its ninth budget—are not driven by our nation's best interests but by polls and what the government thinks, in an election year, is in the best interests of the coalition and not of the Australian community.

Let us think about what is outstanding in that huge spend by the Howard government. There are clearly some good initiatives which the Labor opposition was arguing for in the lead-up to the budget. In some instances, we were making announcements— which had been properly costed and funded—for the purpose of telling the Australian community what any decent government ought to be doing in terms of the delivery of services. I acknowledge the good initiatives that are the result of community campaigns that confronted the government and the opposition—for example, special assistance for those with diabetes. I also compliment the opposition on the government taking our lead on the baby care payment. And then there is the money for aged care. Anyone who goes around to aged care facilities at the moment knows that aged care is a huge issue in the Australian community not only because of the ageing of the Australian community but because of the cost of providing those services. For people working in aged care services, it is not just a job: it is part and parcel of their life. They cannot go home and forget the services they provide to our elderly people.

There is some spending in the budget that needs to be supported, but there are also areas that deserve criticism. I clearly indicate that since 1996 this government—and this is where the budget is lacking—has systematically dismantled Medicare; underfunded universities, forcing them to jack up their fees; and ignored a range of other issues, such as support for regional communities and urban development.

I also believe that we have got to do more on the apprenticeship front. As you go around Australia, you find there are major skills shortages, especially in regional communities. We have got to do what we can to create additional TAFE places and to encourage our young people to think not only about university but also about the wonderful career opportunities in the traditional trades, such as the building, metal, electrical and plumbing industries. We need skilled people if we are to go forward, and those skilling opportunities are not just through universities; they are also through the TAFE sector—and the opposition are very much committed, if we are fortunate enough to win the next election, to creating additional places in the TAFE sector.

The end result of this budget is that the Howard government has placed Australian families under increasing financial pressure, and they will not be conned by the carrots which are going to be made available in the next six weeks and which were also announced in the budget a couple of weeks ago. I will tell you why—because this budget does nothing to relieve the stress in the Australian community in a range of areas. The community now accepts that this is the highest taxing government in Australia's history; so there ought to be some money to spend because, after all, it has been ripped out of taxpayers' pockets on an ongoing basis.

Whilst this government is the highest taxing government in Australian history and continually has its hands in taxpayers' pockets, it is said in the streets, in the community meetings and in the schools that the cost of visiting a GP is on an ever-increasing spiral. In my electorate I am continually finding examples of doctors moving away from bulk-billing, and ordinary people are feeling very desperate about making ends meet—having to put their hands in their pocket and go into debt just to go and see a GP.

We have then got the erosion of funding for schools and universities, which is in essence putting the cost more than ever onto families to educate their children, not only in primary and secondary school but also in preschool, child care and post-secondary schooling in universities and TAFEs. For pensioners and others in the community who are doing it tough, the cost of telephones is increasing continually, with no commitment—and this is a huge criticism of Telstra at the moment—to improve service delivery. Then there is the matter of housing. Housing costs are taking up a larger part of the household budget than ever through increased mortgage payments, household debt and lack of affordable rental accommodation. There are therefore some very serious issues that we have to come to terms with as a community.

The issue is then how the government has responded to these pressures—by spending $35 billion on a tax and family package. That could be a good package if it were properly targeted and properly spent. But a close examination of the announcements shows that the tax and family package of the Howard government in its ninth budget ignores three out of five families and singles, and the $15 billion in tax cuts benefits only one in five taxpayers. It means that anyone earning less than $52,000 per year will not see one cent in tax cuts.

When you examine the detail, you start looking at your own electorate. I looked at the tax and family package—especially the tax package. I found that, in my electorate of Batman, 92 per cent of workers will miss out on a tax cut. In fact, over the life of the forward estimates, these people will effectively receive a tax increase, because the budget does not even address the issue of bracket creep. I will continue to stress this issue over the ensuing months.

But, more importantly for an electorate such as mine, under this budget the disincen-tive associated with tax continues to present a barrier to hard work and effort. That is what life is about, hard work and effort, and the Australian community is actually prepared to pull its weight; but it needs government to give assistance in the areas that deserve assistance. Ninety-two per cent of my electorate miss out on a tax cut. It is not a wealthy electorate; it has many very poor communities and families. What also irks and irritates them is the fact that not only are they not getting any financial benefit out of the budget but also there is no commitment to improve services to offset this tax cut for low- and middle-income earners.

The budget, for example, makes no commitment to restore bulk-billing. It makes it harder to keep one's children at school and to send them to university. There is also no fundamental commitment to improve basic services for everyday Australians. I suppose it is about priorities, and this is what the budget debate is really about: how you best spend the hard-earned taxpayer dollars that you have ripped out of the wallets and purses of the Australian community.

When the 92 per cent of my electorate, those struggling families, who will not get a tax cut look at the budget's detail and priorities, they get irritated by the fact that, whilst they get nothing, the Howard government has allocated a staggering $109 million for government advertising. That is what I say the budget is about. It is not about what is in the best interests of the Australian community but about what the government perceives to be in the best interests of its electoral prospects. It is also interesting to note that this $109 million in advertising does not even include the cost of creating the ads, printing brochures, mail-outs and research and public relations campaigns. It is also no coincidence that such a large advertising budget has been allocated in this, an election year.

There are serious issues at stake in this budget and its potential impact on families and the nature of Australian society. The highest taxing government in the history of Australia continues to rip people off, and I think it is fair that people get something back. Not only are they not getting anything back; the services that they expect the government to provide are continually being eroded. That is also, I might say, the situation with respect to my responsibilities as a shadow minister, which I want to touch on briefly today.

The government seeks to create the impression that it cares about regional Australia. The truth is that the government's announcements—and I have read them in detail—translate to funding commitments through projects and programs that are largely in the seats of The Nationals, which are regarded as being electorally difficult, and in some instances in the seats of their coalition partner, the Liberal Party, around the country. Obviously there are a few targeted funding programs, such as Regional Partnerships and Sustainable Regions, that provide a boost to regional areas. But, if we are to make a real difference in the lives of regional Australians, we need to think more broadly. We have to have regard to the fact that people in regional Australia have to have access to doctors; bulk-billing; schools, universities and TAFE colleges; telephone and Internet services of the same level as those in the metropolitan areas; and transport infrastructure that meets the needs of regional communities.

In that regard, I am lucky that I have not held my breath waiting for the announcement over the last couple of years of the AusLink national land transport plan. It has been almost two years. We have yet another promise in the budget that it will be announced on 7 June, but only yesterday we had a suggestion from the minister for roads, Senator Ian Campbell, that we might not be able to meet that deadline. The budget includes a $450 million commitment to the interstate rail track this year, and I commend the government for that investment. However, I also believe that we have a huge infrastructure backlog in Australia, something that in roads alone amounts to about $10 billion.

I am very concerned about the unwillingness by the current government as part of that national land transport plan to commit to the ongoing Commonwealth responsibility for funding improvements and maintenance of the national highway. We need a national highway system in Australia and we need different levels of government to accept their respective responsibilities. We cannot have a land transport plan which is about cherry picking projects around Australia for electoral purposes, especially when we have a government which basically uses its road and infrastructure programs not in a strategic way but for the purposes of improving its electoral prospects.

There are major concerns with the budget, not just from the opposition, whose job is to draw the community's attention to those concerns so that they are more broadly understood by the community at large. In my own electorate, 92 per cent of workers miss out on a tax cut, and that is a pretty broad criticism of the budget. We are told that some might see a small benefit from the $600 per child payment to supplement the family tax benefit announced in the budget. My office received a significant number of phone calls after the budget of a couple of Tuesdays ago. People said to my staff, `What is the benefit of that $600 when the truth is that it is already going to be eaten up by existing family debt problems?' It does not solve the problems; it is just an endeavour to buy a short-term fix to get the government over the hurdle of the next election.

Do not try those cons on the Australian community. They are a very intelligent community; they are able to see through the finer details and work out the impact on their own households. They do not see the $600 carrot as fixing their problems. They see the requirement on an ongoing basis to pay more to go and see a doctor, to educate their kids and for basic things such as a telephone line and access to the Internet—which are so fundamental to education in the 21st century—as being costs they have to pick up, despite the fact that they then have to put their hands in their pockets because the Howard government continues to be the highest taxing government in the history of Australia.

The budget is the cornerstone of the Howard government's approach to re-election. But the truth is that the budget has failed to solve the huge number of problems that confront the Australian community today. It takes us back to that fundamental commitment given by the Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 1996 election. He went all around Australia basically giving a commitment to govern for all Australians. I simply say that this budget more than ever says very starkly that the Howard government no longer governs for all Australians but, more importantly, for a minority who it believes will suit its electoral prospects in the ensuing months.

The budget also says, without doubt, that it is a government that not only will not govern for the majority of Australians but also has run out of ideas and puff. It produces election budgets, not plans for the future of Australia in the 21st century. That is what this election ought to be about—where we go over the next couple of decades. It ought to be about a real debate on health and education, how we correct the problems of infrastructure provision in Australia, access to TAFE and apprenticeships, how to attract migrants to live in regional communities and a range of other matters.

The budget speaks for itself. It is a big spending budget aimed at suiting the Prime Minister's electoral prospects and guaranteeing that in the next term he stands down and hands over the reins to the Treasurer, Mr Costello, who is unliked and unloved by the Australian community. The Australian community have given their verdict. They are intelligent people and they expect not only decent tax cuts but also a return on their tax investment in the form of proper attention by government to fundamental services such as health, education and the provision of infrastructure around Australia. I commend the second reading amendment to the House. (Time expired)

Debate (on motion by Mr Ruddock) adjourned.