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Monday, 27 February 2012
Page: 1972

Ms OWENS (Parramatta) (21:02): One of the frustrating things about being part of the current government—one that has so many achievements in an electorate like mine where there is very little local media—is actually telling the story of some of the more complex tasks that the government has undertaken, the ones that do not translate well to short grabs or small flyers. I am going to talk about just some of the things that we have delivered in the last four years, particularly in relation to my electorate.

When we came to government in 2007 university enrolments in Parramatta were lagging behind the rest of Sydney. People in Western Sydney enrolled in university at around three per cent of the population, compared to 5.2 per cent Sydney wide. That clearly was not good enough, but what was particularly distressing about those figures was that in the 10 years previous to us winning government in 2007 the enrolment rates for people from disadvantaged communities and Indigenous communities actually dropped, and the gap between Sydney and Western Sydney actually broadened over that decade.

When we came to government in 2007 we made a commitment that by 2020 the government would have 20 per cent of undergraduate enrolments from people from low-socioeconomic-status backgrounds, and we set about trying to achieve that. We are providing $749 million to improve access to undergraduate courses for people from low-socioeconomic-status backgrounds as well as improving the retention and completion rates for those students. Universities and schools in my community have been setting about trying to improve those numbers, and I am pleased to say that since 2009 the number of university enrolments by disadvantaged students has increased by nearly 13 per cent—again, a great achievement that gets very little coverage.

We also had a big improvement in high school attainments. The high school retention rate grew from about 30 per cent in the eighties to reach the high 70s by about 2001, but it largely stagnated there. That is not good enough, considering the need for highly skilled workers in our community and the disadvantage that a person faces if they do not graduate from high school.

When we came to office nearly 25 per cent of people in Western Sydney were not graduating from high school, so we made a commitment with COAG that 90 per cent of young people aged 20 to 24 will have a year 12 or equivalent qualification by 2015. Nationally, participation in education and training increased by 5.6 per cent between 2008 and 2010, and we currently sit at around 85 per cent attainment—again, a great improvement.

As far as the health system is concerned, it could only be described as a hotchpotch of policies when we were elected in 2007. Huge tracts of the country could not get adequate services, and poor distribution of services was literally costing lives. It was a shocking fact that, with some cancers, you were three times more likely to die if you were diagnosed in a regional or remote area than if you were diagnosed in a city. That is a shocking fact that should not have been acceptable to any government. Your chances of surviving cancer depended as much on your postcode as anything else. The further away you were from a capital city, the worse your prognosis was.

So we decided the best solution was to radically improve treatment options for patients. We decided to build an Australia wide network of regional cancer centres, announced in the 2010-11 budgets. Today, 24 projects are in planning or under construction across the country. These centres will serve a catchment area of well over seven million people. They will provide 7,600 additional radiotherapy treatments and over 127,000 additional chemotherapy treatments each year, along with 180 accommodation beds.

Western Sydney has some of the largest and busiest hospitals in the country. Westmead Hospital, in my electorate, is the largest medical campus in the Southern Hemisphere. But, when we came to government in 2007, there was an urgent need for more beds and increased funding for elective surgery and emergency departments. We have delivered 232 new subacute beds, of which 152 are already operational, and $20 million in additional funding for surgery and emergency departments.

When we came to government there were widespread shortages of doctors across the country, but particularly in Western Sydney. Last year the Prime Minister opened the University of Western Sydney Blacktown/Mt Druitt Clinical School, which benefited from over $20 million of Commonwealth funding. Six years ago there were no medical students in Blacktown or Mt Druitt; next year there will be 150. There will also be a second clinical school, at Nepean, next year, so Western Sydney will have two medical clinical schools, just a few short years after Labor came to office.

The number of GP training places in Western Sydney has increased by 50 per cent. There are now 65 GP registrars, 38 junior doctors in general practice, and 14 additional Commonwealth funded specialists in training in my area. The number of Commonwealth funded medical specialist training posts in Western Sydney has increased by 62 per cent. There are extra nursing places, with 290 more nurses in training at the University of Western Sydney in 2010 than there were three years prior. We are also delivering infrastructure, with $189 million going into hospital infrastructure, including in Nepean and Liverpool.

In the area of skills generally, there were widespread skill shortages across the country and in my area when we came to office. There had been rapid growth in some areas, and a lack of response by the previous government had left significant shortages. There were many warnings by the Reserve Bank and by businesses both big and small about the need to address this. We immediately made record investment in training to build a high-skilled workforce and boost productivity, with more than $11.1 billion in total skills funding in the three years from 2008 to 2011. That is an increase of almost 55 per cent compared to the former government's investment over an equivalent period.

We also put more young people into training. Apprenticeship and traineeship numbers have soared. The number was up to 460,000 in March last year, the highest level ever recorded. We have also given more people the opportunity to gain qualifications than ever before, with a 23 per cent increase in numbers since 2007. For higher level qualifications, the increase was greater—the number was 27 per cent greater in 2009 than in 2007. In 2010, almost 140,000 students who already had degree-level qualifications were in VET. That number is up 38 per cent since 2007. We have also given better access to education for diverse groups. In 2010, there were 83,000 VET students who identified as Indigenous—up 17 per cent from 2007. There are 110,00 students who identify as having a disability—an increase of eight per cent. And there are 271,000 students from non-English-speaking backgrounds—an increase of 17.6 per cent. Again, we have not ignored our regional friends. We have invested in education and skills with $500 million from the Education Investment Fund for regional universities and TAFEs and an extra $110 million to recognise the additional costs incurred by regional universities.

On the issue of families with children who were struggling to find child care, you might remember that between 2004 and 2007 there was an acute shortage in child care. The percentage of family income spent on childcare fees was a whopping 13 per cent in 2004, and rebates came not at the end of the year that you were in but at the end of the next tax year. Through substantial reform we have managed to reduce the percentage of family income spent on child care from 13 per cent to 7.5 per cent over the four years that we have governed so far. So $14.9 billion—that is nearly $15 billion—now goes into the pockets of families through the childcare benefit and the childcare rebate. We did that by increasing the rebate from 30 to 50 per cent for out-of-pocket expenses and by increasing the limit from $4,354 to $7,000. That has helped 735,000 Australian families since 1 July 2008. Parents can now have the rebate paid fortnightly if they choose, which helps them with their fortnightly bills. We have also provided additional assistance to 640,000 low- and middle-income families each year through the childcare benefit. A low-income family using full-time child care now has around 80 per cent of their childcare fees covered.

I am also particularly pleased that we acted very early on for parents with children with disabilities. The $147 million Better Start for Children with Disability initiative allows children to access a range of early intervention services, including speech pathologists, audiologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, orthoptists and psychologists. We all knew when we came to government that we needed to do much more for people with disabilities. I am pleased to say that focusing initially on early intervention where most of the difference would be made has over four years impacted on around 9,000 young people with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome and moderate or severe hearing impairments. These are all extraordinary achievements that get very little coverage—but achievements of which I am very proud. (Time expired)