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Tuesday, 3 February 2009
Page: 86

Mr BALDWIN (8:09 PM) —I rise today to speak to Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2008-2009 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2008-2009 and to discuss a number of issues that are of great concern to the constituents of the Paterson electorate. As I am the member for Paterson, keeping in touch with local issues is very important to me, as I campaign for the rights of those individuals who elected me to represent them in this federal parliament. It has been over 14 months since the Rudd Labor government won the last election and apparently took control of Australian federal politics. During that time, Australia’s economy has spiralled out of control and the Prime Minister has been—to use his own party’s words—spending like a drunken sailor ever since. It is a fact that after only 14 months in government Australia is less prosperous, our economy is rapidly getting weaker and the outlook for Australian families and businesses is more uncertain than ever before. It would appear that the Prime Minister, Treasurer and finance minister, in talking down the economy straight after the election as prophets of doom and gloom, have accelerated our approach towards recession. This is not simply a coincidence; this is a result of the Prime Minister and the Rudd Labor government proving that they are unable to meet the challenges facing Australia and to make the decisions and instil the confidence necessary to keep Australia growing.

During their reign, the Rudd Labor government have failed to uphold the legacy of the former Howard government. Over the past 14 months, I have been inundated with correspondence from constituents in the Paterson electorate who continue to inform me of the day-to-day struggles that they are facing, such as the deterioration of roads in the region, increased hospital waiting lists, worsening crime, the declining state of our environment, insufficient pension rates, fears over their job security and a fear of losing their family home. The people of Paterson care little about which level of government has the responsibility; they believed the Prime Minister when he said, ‘The buck stops with me.’ It is evident that the Prime Minister and Labor are bogged down in bureaucracy and have no consistent, long-term strategy. In the lead-up to the last election, the Labor Party promised a national plan for Australia’s future. However, instead all we have seen is government by review—including at least 168 reviews, committees and inquiries—and a Prime Minister vying for headlines. This is not Big Brother, Prime Minister. You may have your 15 minutes of fame, but at what cost for Australia’s future?

My constituents and I demand to know whether it was a part of Labor’s national plan to ignore the needs of Paterson constituents—or are they just the innocent victims of a crusade being led by a Prime Minister who is all about spin and is not interested in substance? In 2007 the Prime Minister told Australians that he would take responsibility for fixing our hospital system and that the buck would stop with him. If this is the case, Prime Minister, please tell me why healthcare facilities in Paterson are still not up to par. As a case in point, why did it take residents of Maitland and its surrounds over a year to gain local access to a Medicare funded MRI scanner,14 months after it was promised to them by the Rudd Labor government, who had a ‘national plan’?

Back in September 2007 the coalition put out a tender for an MRI licence covering the areas of Newcastle and the Hunter Valley. It seemed that the Labor Party supported this notion—at least on paper, anyhow. A press release put out before the 2007 election by the then shadow minister for health, the member for Hunter, the member for Newcastle, the member for Shortland, Paterson’s Labor candidate and the Labor candidate for Charlton outlined their health policies. They said of the MRI for Maitland:

… Labor supports the provision of Medicare funding for an MRI machine in Maitland.

But what did we see after that? We saw the tender recalled and not issued for many months. That tender recall was to insert the word ‘Maitland’. Maitland has always been in the Hunter region. The Rudd Labor government happily ignored the cries of constituents for over 14 months and left seriously ill people in the lurch. If the coalition had been re-elected, this licence would have been in operation for over a year now, benefiting the entire community. It is a disgrace that Paterson residents were disadvantaged and inconvenienced by not having local access to the promised Medicare funded MRI scanner sooner simply because the Rudd Labor government bungled the tender process.

The Maitland healthcare system has also received much coverage recently, due to the unfortunate incidents leading up to a 30-year-old Paterson constituent miscarrying at the Maitland Hospital, where she was simply directed to go to the hospital’s public toilet. Out of respect for the woman and her family, I will not go into the finer details of the circumstances surrounding the event, except to say that protocols and resources should have been put in place to allow hospital staff to handle the situation better. I ask the Prime Minister to answer the question: what protocol is he putting in place to prevent this from ever happening again? In the lead-up to the 2007 federal election, the Prime Minister said:

I have a long term plan to fix our nation’s hospitals. I will be responsible for implementing my plan, and I state this with absolute clarity: the buck will stop with me.

So, Prime Minister, Paterson constituents and I are waiting, and not very patiently, for you to unroll this national plan immediately. What happened is simply unacceptable, and I demand to know what plans you are putting in place to ensure that there are enough resources in hospitals to ensure that such incidents will never happen again.

Continuing on the issue of health, how can the Prime Minister justify attempting to axe the Medicare chronic disease dental scheme? This scheme, introduced by the former Howard government in 2007, was created to allow chronically ill people who are being managed by their GP under an enhanced primary care plan, access to Medicare rebates for dental services. Yet, despite the scheme’s huge success in treating thousands of people with poor dental health who would otherwise have had to go without, the Rudd Labor government planned to axe the scheme. This revolutionary funding, which allowed people with complex dental health problems to access private dental procedures to a value of up to $4,250 over two years, had the advantage of shortening public waiting lists and enhancing the wellbeing of many. If it had not been for the coalition’s tireless fight to retain this scheme, people like Janet Grant in my electorate would have continued to suffer excruciating dental pain as a result of chronic dental illness, as the current pension allocation is simply not enough to cover such costs. Realising how important this scheme was to the people of Paterson, I was determined to ensure that it was not axed. The efforts paid off. Comments made by people like Janet Grant, who proclaimed that the dental procedure changed her life, continue to drive me to hold the Rudd Labor government to account.

However, it is not just health care that the Rudd Labor government seems to have missed the mark on. At the end of 2008, as part of the national economic stimulus support package, the Labor government announced a one-off round of payments for Australia’s four million pensioners, a move which the coalition openly supported. However, the Prime Minister has refused and continues to refuse to increase the base pension rate permanently, which is of grave concern to the coalition and to pensioners in the Paterson electorate alike. I, along with my colleagues, have called for an increase of $30 a week to the single age pension, but the Prime Minister and Treasurer continue to deny our seniors this increase, despite admitting that they themselves could not afford to live off the basic pension rate of $273 per week. Each and every week, pensioners call and tell me that $273 is not sufficient for them to live off either, but, unfortunately, the government continues to ignore the coalition and the community’s push, on behalf of pensioners across the country, to increase this allowance by $30 a week. In addition, under the Rudd Labor government 22,000 senior Australians are expected to lose their entitlements through Mr Rudd’s plans to tighten the eligibility test for superannuation co-contributions. To strip senior pensioners of an allowance is possibly as low as you can stoop.

Furthermore, the government’s attempt to lessen the impact of looming recession on home soil by injecting one-off funds into the wallets of many low-income Australians has done little to stimulate the Australian economy. In fact, Harvey Norman chairman Gerry Harvey said the effects of the cash handouts may have already worn off for the retail sector. Harvey’s comments reinforce the coalition’s argument that the money would have been better spent on increasing the single rate of pension by $30 a week. In fact, it would seem that the only big winners were club and pub proprietors and the state governments, who reaped the rewards from increased profit margins directly after a large portion of the stimulus was poured into the pockets of low-income Australians. The Herald Sun article in Melbourne on 24 January 2009 supports this notion in their finding:

THE Rudd Government’s taxpayer funded Christmas bonus is lining the pockets of pokies kings after punters blew a record $250 million last month.

That was just in the state of Victoria, but it is an echo heard in states across the country.

As we begin to hear leaks of information about looming announcements of the second stimulus package, I suggest to the Prime Minister that he should invest in projects which will result in improved infrastructure and increased job security for all Australians. The Paterson electorate would reap much reward from having such funding directly injected into our local economy. I have been campaigning tirelessly for safer roads in the Paterson electorate for over a year now under this new government, but to no avail. Rather than investing in short-term, vote-grabbing cash handouts, the Rudd Labor government should invest in strategic infrastructure building that will increase job security, community wellbeing and bring about market confidence.

Last year I rose in this parliament to present a petition signed by 1,200 Paterson constituents who are concerned about the current state of Bucketts Way, one of the most significant roads in the Hunter region, connecting the rural communities of Raymond Terrace, Gloucester, Wingham and Taree. The petition, which is over 64-pages long, refers to the urgency of the Rudd Labor government matching a re-elected coalition government’s commitment of $12 million to develop passing lanes on Bucketts Way or risk more tragic accidents due to unsafe driving conditions. In its present state, Bucketts Way is essentially a country road without passing lanes. It is not adequately equipped to handle the traffic conditions it currently experiences. Stimulus support for such projects would provide a flow-on effect for the entire community. Lives would not be risked due to unsafe driving conditions, workers would have job security and interstate travel would remain constant.

The next 12 months will be a testing time for Australia, as the full effects of the economic storm take hold. It is time for the Prime Minister and Labor to finally set out a clear strategy to keep Australia strong and secure. Working from the ground up, by setting aside provisions which will give confidence to the job market and improve local infrastructure, is essential to ensuring Australia’s long-term prosperity. The government cannot deny that since they came to power in November 2007 more people are out of work and many more are working less than they would like. Many constituents come into my electorate office seeking assistance in finding work, as Paterson is suffering heavily from the effects of a poorly managed national economy.

Last year, the Rudd Labor government provided just $2.3 million in funding for local governments in the Paterson electorate. This is simply not enough to fix the local infrastructure; it is merely a drop in the ocean. When you consider that the Paterson electorate requires over $20 million just to make essential improvements in numerous roads in the region, including the Bucketts Way, Lakes Way, the Nelson Bay bypass to Shoal Bay, and main roads in the Dungog shire, does the Prime Minister believe that $2.3 million in funding is really going to suffice to help rebuild local governments?

Prime Minister and Treasurer, please do the figures and consider what funding will work towards creating Australian jobs, developing local infrastructure and boosting the local economy and what will be sent overseas in the form of cash handouts being spent on cheap imports. However, it is not just the looming recession that is putting a strain on the constituents in the Paterson electorate. Upon coming to government, Labor used its first budget to slash funding for Tourism Australia by $5.9 million in real terms. Not only this but it also introduced nearly $1 billion of new tourism taxes, crippling Australia’s tourism industry at the very worst time. Despite promises from the current Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2007 federal election that more would be done to improve tourism marketing, the Rudd Labor government went ahead and introduced nearly $1 billion of new tourism taxes and drastically slashed funding. Not surprisingly, the Tourism Forecasting Committee have slashed their expectations for inbound tourism growth for 2008 to zero.

Australia is a country that depends heavily on the tourist dollar. The Paterson electorate also relies heavily on the tourist dollar. I ask the Rudd Labor government to consider what effect this drastic reduction in funding will have on a national scale as well as on small businesses that are struggling to survive in the current economic downturn without any endorsement from its government. I have spoken with countless constituents in the Paterson electorate who work in the retail, hospitality and tourism industries about their concerns over this government’s decision to decrease their financial support for the tourism industry. All those I have spoken with share my concerns about the Rudd Labor government’s mismanagement of the economy and how it will affect their bottom line.

Alan Ray, a constituent and small business owner in the Paterson electorate and former president of the Hunter Regional Tourism Organisation shared with me his serious concerns about how the combination of the government’s decision to cut tourism funding and the party’s inadequate response to the economic downturn will have dire consequences for local business. Paterson is a region that boasts many tourism hot spots. From the golden beaches of Forster-Tuncurry and Port Stephens to the rich and diverse cultural heritage of the Barrington Tops wilderness area and its surrounds, the Paterson electorate is truly an incredible part of Australia. However, despite this, Mr Ray said:

It is my fear that if the Government continues to ignore the tourism industry and doesn’t utilise a second stimulus package to create more jobs within Australia then it will cause devastating impacts on local businesses for years to come. If there is no job security, there will be no confidence in the market and people will remain stationary. This will have a carry on effect, harming countless industries and townships dependent on the tourist dollar.

Mr Ray is not far off the mark with these concerns. After 14 months of Labor, Australian businesses will enter 2009 with the worst business conditions for many years. While the global financial crisis has played its part, actions by the Rudd government have made things worse for many industries, including the tourism sector. Small business and consumer confidence has plummeted to its lowest levels since Paul Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’, and this is simply unacceptable.

Speaking of unacceptable, Prime Minister, why have you spent 25 per cent of your time as Prime Minister overseas? How can the leader of Australia have a thorough understanding of the issues faced by the nation if you are never here to witness what is going on? On behalf of my constituents and all Australians, we must continue to hold the Rudd Labor government to account. When Labor are not busy conducting reviews, they are often making rash decisions, which are made in a state of panic and are poorly thought through. Consequently, the Rudd Labor government also wastes much of its time and taxpayers’ money on coming up with a never-ending list of excuses to justify a string of broken election promises.

I demand more for the constituents of Paterson and will be continuing my public battle with the Prime Minister and all of his mates to ensure that Australia remains the prosperous nation that it was prior to the Rudd Labor government taking over. The Rudd Labor government have failed Australia. We all know this. They have failed to deliver on promises to strengthen our economy, fix our hospitals, revolutionise our schools, provide us with greater access to broadband services and improve Australian tourism. In addition, the Labor Party have also shown little support for small business, are doing very little to help our farmers stay afloat and have introduced new taxes for university students. The list goes on. What Paterson needs and what Australia needs is a Prime Minister who will inspire confidence in the market, create greater job security and pave the way for more Australian jobs. The looming economic recession can be overcome if we unite and come up with real, long-term solutions rather than cash flashes. We need to stop focusing on the possible doom and gloom and, whilst remaining realistic, look towards a prosperous future for our nation that is rich in productivity and properly equipped with essential resources and national services.

As the Prime Minister is showing few signs of responsible and strong leadership, I suggest the Prime Minister embrace the Leader of the Opposition’s offer to sit down together to see if we can bring all our talents together and come up with measures that will assist in creating a more prosperous future for Australia. To get through this economic downturn we must create jobs, jobs, jobs on a national and local scale. We need to stimulate the economy to ensure electorates like Paterson do not buckle under the pressure of the looming recession and guarantee that essential services such as schools and hospitals remain up to par. We need to act and we need to act now. We need to act to restore the confidence that is needed in our community, and on that front, Prime Minister, you have failed and failed miserably.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—I thank the member for Paterson. While this is an appropriation debate and I allowed a full-ranging speech, it would have been appropriate to refer at some stage to the specific appropriation before the chair. As I say, it was an appropriation speech.

Mr Baldwin interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I am not going to enter into debate. You do not have the call. It is an appropriation debate and you did not mention one appropriation. I am not going to enter into debate.

Mr Baldwin —Madam Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. You have made an assertion which is absolutely incorrect, with all due respect.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —I made a suggestion at the end of your speech. There is no ruling. I will not take the point of order.