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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29370

Mr DANBY (1:35 PM) —I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2004-2005, the ninth and last budget of the Howard-Costello government. This budget is, as the Leader of the Opposition said in his speech in response to the budget, a political patch-up job, a short-term fix for the next election. As such, it will serve as a suitable epitaph for a cynical and destructive government which has done much to damage Australia's social fabric. This government has no plan for Australia's future beyond polling day. It hopes to repeat the trick it pulled at the 2001 election, throwing massive bribes at sections of the electorate thought to be in danger of defecting to the opposition. In 2001, it was self-funded retirees and people in regional areas. This time it is young families with children, servicing high mortgages, particularly in the western suburbs of Sydney.

As I said in an article in the New Observer magazine predicting that Mr Howard would do this, the Prime Minister obviously keeps a picture of Jeff Kennett on his desk to remind him of correct election strategy as far as spending public money is concerned. But, as the Leader of the Opposition also said, the government always spends up big before elections. Then, as certain as night follows day, it claws money back in the years that follow through higher taxes and family debts, higher Telstra line charges and user-pays in education and health.

In considering the political strategy behind this budget, I am reminded of a comment by the Prime Minister's friend the President of the United States, George W. Bush. Paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, he said at a dinner: `You can fool some of the people all of the time—and those are the ones you have to concentrate on.' I think President Bush was joking, but the Prime Minister and the Treasurer seem actually to have taken him literally. They seem to think that they can once again bribe and bluster through an election campaign with the usual rhetoric about how only the coalition can be trusted with Australia's finances—as we heard from the last speaker—regardless of the fact that it was the Hawke-Keating governments that integrated us with the international economy. Perhaps the current government have forgotten how Abraham Lincoln's famous line ends: `You can't fool all of the people all of the time.'

The Prime Minister and the Treasurer bribed, bluffed and bullied their way back into office in 2001, but they will find it a much harder trick to pull off again. The Australian people have seen over the past three years the truth of the Leader of the Opposition's words that, with the Howard government:

It gives and then it takes, but it never lasts. It never lasts with the Howard government.

Yesterday I listened to the excellent budget debate speech given by the honourable member for Braddon, who represents a regional seat with large numbers of low- to middle-income families with children—exactly the kinds of families that the Treasurer claims will benefit from his budget. The member for Braddon showed clearly how hollow that claim was, and it is one of the reasons I am sure he will be re-elected.

Melbourne Ports is a different electorate. In terms of weekly family income it is the 10th wealthiest electorate in Australia. It is the second wealthiest electorate represented by a Labor member. On this side of the House only the honourable member for Sydney's constituents have a higher per capita income. Both the honourable member for Sydney and I represent large numbers of people who work in growth industries such as the media, arts, tourism, medical and scientific research, information technology and higher education. These overall statistics conceal a great deal of social reality in my electorate. As I said in my first speech to this House, Melbourne Ports is an area where some people are looking for their next million while others are looking for their next meal. It has many high-income people. It also has many people with very difficult economic circumstances, many people who depend on government support, many lone parents struggling to bring up children, many elderly people living on their own and a distressingly large number of people who are homeless, who have drug and alcohol problems or who suffer from mental illness.

Just around the corner from my electoral office in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, are the facilities of the Salvation Army and the Sacred Heart Mission, who provide services for so many of these people, mostly on a voluntary basis. They have been put under increasing pressure year by year by this government ignoring these kinds of problems. Every day they provide meals for hundreds of people. My electorate staff do their best to help many of the people with these social and economic problems. One of the major problems facing people in Melbourne Ports is that they have to deal with the administration of Centrelink. The staff at the South Melbourne and Windsor Centrelink offices do their best but are overworked and underpaid. The system is deliberately structured to make it as difficult as possible for people to gain access to the benefits they are entitled to. The system also leads to people running up huge debts through no fault of their own, and without any warning, which they are then often required to repay. The welfare agencies and my office have to pick up the pieces afterwards.

When I look at the budget to see what relief the large number of struggling people in my electorate can hope to obtain from this government, I am disappointed, though not surprised, to find that it is very little. There is nothing to encourage bulk-bulling by doctors and thus relieve the pressure on low-income families to meet out-of-pocket medical expenses. There are no commitments to undo this government's disgraceful decision in 1996 to abolish the Keating government's dental scheme. As the honourable member for Lalor has repeatedly pointed out, there is no funding for vaccinating children against deadly pneumococcal disease.

Medicare is one of the great achievements of the Hawke Labor government. We all know the current Prime Minister opposed Medicare as a matter of principle from the moment of its birth, just as he opposed its predecessor, the Whitlam government's Medibank. He was Treasurer in the Fraser government, which dismantled Medibank. But now that Medicare is so widely supported by the Australian community, the Prime Minister knows he dare not move against it openly. Instead, the government has a policy of strangling Medicare by stealth. People in my electorate, no matter what their income level, support Medicare and oppose this government's insidious campaign to undermine it. There is nothing in this budget to change their minds on this matter.

Instead of taking steps to restore bulk-billing and Labor's dental health scheme, this government is wasting $20 million on another dishonest television campaign to persuade voters that it is doing something to fix up Medicare. As the honourable member for Lalor has pointed out, that money could have paid for 800,000 bulk-billed consultations. Does the government seriously think people in my electorate will be fooled by this publicity stunt? No amount of advertising can cover up the fact that, under the Howard government, Medicare is bleeding to death.

One of the distinctive features of my electorate is the very high number of tertiary students. More than 10 per cent of the residents of Melbourne Ports are students. I have two fine campuses in my electorate: the Caulfield campus of Monash University and the Victorian College of the Arts, where I recently attended a very splendid arts graduation. Many students at other universities—Melbourne, Monash and RMIT—live in my electorate. Every week I get letters and emails from tertiary students and their families about the increased burden of debt that they are being forced to take on as a result of the sharp increases in HECS fees. As we know, HECS fees will rise again at most universities next year—in most cases by the full 25 per cent which the Minister for Education, Science and Training is now permitting. This means that from next year students will be paying as much as $15,000 for an arts degree, $20,000 for a science degree and $40,000 for a law degree. They will be graduating with huge levels of debt, making it much harder to buy a home or start a family. If the government is concerned about the reasons for Australia's declining birthrate, it might start by looking at the consequences of some of its own policies.

Even worse is the fact that this budget does nothing about the crisis facing the families of the many well-qualified students—including graduates of the government, Catholic and Jewish schools in my electorate—who cannot get a place in an Australian university. This year 20,000 qualified applicants missed out on a place. Those places are going instead to students who are not necessarily as well qualified as those who are currently missing out but who can afford to pay full fees—fees as high as $150,000. Qualified Australian students deserve a fully funded HECS place at university. Labor's policy is to abolish this government's regressive policy, to make an additional 20,000 places available and to reverse the 25 per cent hike in HECS. This is a policy that many students and parents in my electorate will certainly welcome.

The coalition intends campaigning again as the only party which can be trusted with Australia's defences. The budget allocates a total of more than $18 billion for defence for the 2004-05 year, yet everyone connected with the ADF knows how overstretched and underresourced the ADF is as a result of the commitments in Iraq, East Timor and the Solomons. It would seem an elementary proposition that if the government commits defence forces to military operations it must fund them appropriately. The government owes a duty not only to the taxpayer but also to the personnel of the ADF for putting their lives on the line, usually at the cost of great disruption to their families.

Last week we learned from a new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that the government is funding the ADF on the cheap, depriving our defence forces of necessary new equipment so that the funds originally earmarked for that can be diverted to paying for current operations—most notably last year's commitment of forces to Iraq. This may be because the government wants to conceal from the Australian people the real cost of that commitment and the extent to which it was diverting defence resources from other parts of the defence budget.

We learned that the Howard government has delayed over $2.2 billion worth of defence capital projects since the defence white paper of 2000. These projects have been deferred until 2008-09 at the earliest. The funds have been diverted to meet increased ADF personnel costs, which have risen by nearly $740 million over the last year. Everyone understands why those costs have risen. It is because the ADF is heavily committed to overseas operations. Governments can make these commitments but, once they are undertaken, they have to make sufficient outlays to pay for the extra personnel costs. What the government is doing is shifting funds from capital purchases to personnel costs.

As the shadow minister for defence, Senator Evans, pointed out last week, none of the top 20 defence projects that were in the planning stage at the time the Howard government came to office have yet been delivered. Four have been cancelled and the rest have been pushed back into the indefinite future. Defence technology is extremely expensive and also has long lead times between when it is ordered and when it becomes available for operations, so delays currently being imposed by the Howard government on meeting the ADF's capital equipment needs mean the ability of our defence forces to respond to crises in our own region will be set back for years ahead. As important capital assets such as the F111s head for retirement, the ADF's operational capacity may be seriously jeopardised by the Howard government's short-sighted cost shifting.

I would like to comment on another element of this budget, and that is the foreign aid budget. On this aspect of the budget, one well-informed commentator said:

Despite having economic growth in excess of 3.5% and a very healthy economy, our aid as a proportion of GNP still languishes around 0.26%, well below the internationally agreed benchmark of 0.7%.

... ... ...

The US have increased foreign aid by one third in the last two years.

And I might say that that increase is largely in the area of assistance with opposing the AIDS pandemic in Africa—a move of the Bush government that is little noticed but would have much wider support than their commitment in Iraq. The person who made that comment continued:

The least we could have done in such economic prosperity is match that commitment.

That comment was made by that other Costello, Tim Costello, the Treasurer's brother. As we sit here, a new humanitarian crisis is unfolding. It is one which will place demands on our foreign aid budget. In the Darfur province of Sudan, Arab militias backed by an Islamist military regime are engaging in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the African population of that country. Aid agencies accuse the Sudanese government of launching aerial attacks against defenceless villagers and committing serious human rights violations, including mass killing, looting and rape. Already hundreds of thousands of people have fled from their homes and tens of thousands have been killed. According to the UN, the refugees are being systematically starved in what amounts to a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Up to 300,000 people are in immediate danger of death.

So far, I have not heard a word from the Minister for Foreign Affairs about what is going on in Sudan or what this government intends to do about it. I am pleased to hear from the honourable member for Hindmarsh that the government has now committed $5 million to emergency relief in Sudan. I cannot help but think of the $109 million which, as Senator Faulkner was able to discover at Senate estimates this week, the government intends to spend on bogus advertising campaigns to secure its re-election. As that other Costello identified, some of that money would at least make a contribution to helping those people who are facing genocide in Sudan. When we remember events like Rwanda, as we did in a private member's motion earlier this week, we have a direct obligation to try and prevent events such as the impending genocide in Sudan. It is amazing what areas of international affairs get greatly reported on. I think it is particularly odious for those who support the United Nations that the representative of Sudan—a country that has embarked on genocide at the moment—is chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission.

I now turn to one area of particular interest to me as Deputy Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, and that is the government's proposed changes to electoral legislation and the appropriation costs of that over the next five years. According to the government's own figures, it will cost $15.1 million over five years to implement these roll integrity measures. In my view, the government is spending $15.1 million to disenfranchise people. It is spending $15.1 million to propagandise while reducing the quality of Australian democracy. Talk about money being badly spent!

As I have previously explained, in the 11 years from 1990-2001, there were five elections and one referendum, amounting to six mass votes by the Australian people. Each time, 12 million Australians voted. Six times 12 million is 72 million, which is the number of times the Australian people voted during that period. The number of proven cases of electoral fraud by the Electoral Commission in that entire period was 72. That is one case of electoral fraud per million votes in that period. That is a great testament to the integrity of the electoral roll. The fact that the government is going to spend $15.1 million to restrict participation in electoral democracy when we had only 72 cases in 11 years, during which 72 million people have voted, works out at about $200,000 per case of electoral fraud.

Let me outline what the government are planning to do. They are planning to close the electoral roll on the day the election is announced. Those people who are listening to this broadcast should be quite clear about what this means. The Fraser government did this in 1983. They closed the roll on the day the election was announced, and it disenfranchised nearly 90,000 young people. It is those people who use the period between the announcement of the election and the five days grace that they are given to enrol to vote.

Whatever side of politics we are on in this House, we have a responsibility as democrats to see that in a compulsory voting system as many people as possible have their entitlement to vote and participate looked after. In fact, the government have acted against the recommendations of the Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters—the member for Kooyong, who sits on the other side of the chamber; a member of the government; a person who actually knows something about electoral integrity. Against his recommendations, against the unanimous recommendations of his committee, they plan to close the electoral roll on the day of the vote.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Finance and Public Administration argued in the House that this was necessary to improve the electoral roll. On three previous occasions when this government was elected, the system allowed 17- and 18-year-olds to enrol to vote. Is he suggesting that the Howard government was elected in an invalid way? That can be the only conclusion from the government's deliberate decision to spend $15 million on fraudulent advertising to tell us about the election roll when there are only 72 proven cases. This action is against the specific recommendations of the government's own chair of the committee, the member for Kooyong. The effect will be to disenfranchise 85,000 young people. What a wonderful expenditure of public money—to actually reduce democracy rather than increase it!

Many members of the government are very uncomfortable about this because they know that there are members of the National and Liberal parties who sit on the joint committee who unanimously accepted the report recommendations that we should leave the system exactly as it is. The government claims that it is concerned about electoral fraud, yet for years it has ignored the Australian Electoral Commission begging for more money to address their concerns about not having enough money to carry out their basic functions. According to Mark Davis in the Australian Financial Review, the Department of Finance and Administration supports the AEC's view that the government has been underfunding them for a decade and that they have been suffering a funding shortfall.

The government says it plans to spend between $50,000 and $250,000 on advertising to ensure 17- and 18-year-olds are on the roll to vote. While this is important, the government is planning to spend $109 million on various advertising campaigns to help it get re-elected. If it spent no money at all on advertising to tell us about the integrity of the electoral roll and just left things as they are, more people would have the right to vote. This is a farcical situation and the government is appropriating public money to be spent on a fraudulent election campaign to try to limit the number of people who can vote. If it left the system as it is, 17- and 18-year-olds, who have as much right as anyone else to vote, would be allowed to enrol in the usual period of five days grace that they are given. (Time expired)