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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 154

Senator HUMPHRIES (6:30 PM) —I want to make a few remarks in this address-in-reply debate about the recent election and about the agenda which the Howard government brings to the 41st Parliament. First of all, though, I want to correct a slight mistake made by Senator O'Brien in his remarks earlier. He referred to the Stanhope Labor government in the ACT as the ACT's first majority government since the advent of self-government in 1989. It is actually only true to say that the Stanhope government is the first majority government made up of a single party. From 1989 to 1991 there was a majority government made up of a coalition of three parties. I was a member of that government and a minister in that government. I remember it very well. It was not a particularly stable government, but it was a majority government. So what Mr Stanhope has done in this recent election—which, of course, is significant—is not entirely unprecedented.

Very close to the election of the Stanhope government last month was the re-election of the Howard government. That occasion was at least as significant an event in Australian history. It was an occasion where a government, having served three terms in government, sought and obtained a very clear mandate from the Australian people. In the ACT that support for the government was also reflected. The Liberal Party team in the Senate election received a swing of 3.57 per cent. The Liberal Party candidates standing for the House of Representatives in the ACT also received a boost in their primary vote. The ACT has been described as a bastion for the Labor Party, and there are some on the other side of the chamber who might smugly assume that that is the case still, but I would caution them on the basis of this election to think again.

The fact is that the ACT is doing very well; it is thriving. Business confidence is extremely high, mortgage interest rates are low, unemployment is the lowest in the country and our schools are doing extremely well. More than anything else, the citizens of the ACT have the prudent economic management of the Howard government over the last 8½ years to thank for that state of affairs. The ACT has had a strongly growing economy. Employment in particular has a very positive outlook in this territory, because the coalition government has invested heavily in this territory and has invested heavily in a quality public service. Its investment in the Public Service in particular has been responsible for growth in employment in the Public Service in the last four or five years, which has contributed to strong economic performance in the private sector as well. The reason that the coalition candidates in the ACT did so well in this election, in my opinion, is that voters saw a stark contrast between the continuation of growth and opportunities under the coalition and the prospect of real loss of opportunity, and particularly loss of public sector and private sector jobs, under a Latham Labor government.

The fact is that the Latham opposition went into the election with a very clear policy of cutting Public Service jobs, particularly in Canberra. Their hit list was advertised, if you can call it that, in May this year in an article which appeared in the Melbourne Age. It was supposedly a leaked list of Labor's targeted Public Service job cuts where Labor would save money. The shadow Treasurer of the day never had the decency to squarely and fairly put in front of the community, particularly not this community in Canberra, exactly what Labor's plans were for reducing the size of the Public Service. Nonetheless, that list was widely adverted to by Labor politicians as the way in which Labor would pay for their many election promises. That list was devastating from the point of view of the people of the ACT. Labor proposed to abolish Invest Australia, giving $44 million worth of savings but costing 56 jobs in Canberra. They intended—and you would be interested in this, Mr Acting Deputy President Lightfoot—to severely cut the National Capital Authority. In that case, $48 million was to be saved over four years, a 40 per cent cut to the budget of the NCA. Proportionately, that would have meant job losses of something like 30 positions. That would have dramatically and deleteriously affected the operation of the National Capital Authority. It would have made it impossible to maintain the high standard of, for example, the Parliamentary Triangle. A merger of ABARE and the Bureau of Rural Sciences would have cost 60 jobs. The Office for the Information Economy and the Australian Government Information Management Office were to deliver savings of $40 million. At least 30 jobs would have gone there, and probably many more. Youth employment schemes were to be scrapped or restructured to deliver a saving of $364 million.

Most notoriously perhaps, the then shadow minister for defence, Mr Beazley, flagged the loss of some 3,000 Public Service jobs in defence. When pressed, he ducked and weaved on that figure but the fact is that that sort of figure was being talked about. There was to be $2½ million cut out of cultural institutions in order to fund some kind of bureaucracy to oversee them. The delivery of cultural services on the ground was to be severely compromised by that. Green Corps, job placement, employment and training programs were to be cut back—and the list goes on and on. The ACT community clearly saw that that was an agenda for pain and loss. It was an agenda that would see the prospects of employment, which had been so bright in recent years as a result of a growth in commitments and outlays by the coalition, coming to a real end or being wound back.

Even in the last week of the campaign we had an extreme lack of forthright explanation from the Labor Party about where it was going with those plans. On the very same day that Senator Lundy was telling a gathering of public servants that there would be effectively no net loss of jobs under a Latham government, on the other side of Lake Burley-Griffin her leader was in fact making it clear that there would be serious job losses under a Labor government in Canberra. I do not know how that message was sold to the rest of Australia. Frankly, I do not care how it was sold to the rest of Australia. I know that the people of this territory saw that as an undiluted attack on their future. The support that Labor lost in the Senate in particular in the election that followed a few days later reflected that concern.

Labor's plans were compounded by other measures which demonstrated that they little understood what the needs of the ACT community were. During the campaign the Prime Minister made an announcement that would generate a surge in Canberra's historically low rate of bulk-billing of GP services. That was the announcement that the Medicare rebate would be boosted to 100 per cent of the Medicare scheduled fee, as well as the other measures which have already been announced and put in place. For a standard 15-minute consultation, that is going to mean an additional $4.50 for a visit to the doctor. When the service is bulk-billed, the money goes directly to doctors, encouraging more of them to bulk-bill. Those measures will be of great benefit to Canberrans, more so than Labor's proposed alternatives which linked a 100 per cent rebate only to those services which were bulk-billed by a doctor. In a community where bulk-billing is low and where historically doctors, for whatever reason, do not bulk-bill as much as in other places in Australia—and I regret that fact but it is a fact of life and always has been in the ACT—to link, as Labor did, 100 per cent of the rebate being paid only to doctors who bulk-billed cut people in this city right out of significant numbers of benefits. People in this city were discerning enough to realise that. Of course, Canberrans have already benefited from the decision to provide a $7.50 incentive payment to GPs who bulk-bill concession card holders and children under the age of 16. That has contributed to a recent lift in the bulk-billing rate. Bulk-billing has now risen by more than three percentage points since those measures were introduced. The distinction between Labor and the coalition on these matters was very clear.

However, perhaps the most conspicuous example in Labor's policies of their failure to understand the nature of this community came in the announcement of their arts policy. It was particularly unfortunate, given that the shadow minister for the arts at that time was indeed the Labor Senator for the ACT, Senator Lundy. In her address-in-reply speech today she criticised the coalition's arts policy, which was released during the election campaign. She said the coalition failed to provide `a glimmer of hope' for Australia's cultural future. She said that Labor issued their arts policy during the campaign. She obviously felt it was a good policy.

I would like to contrast these two policies. The coalition announced that it would build a new home for the National Portrait Gallery and boost funding to the National Museum of Australia and ScreenSound Australia, the national film and sound archive. As for their proposals, Labor were deafeningly silent on these facilities. After years of whining, the best that Labor could offer Canberra's cultural institutions was the forced merger of some cultural facilities in the ACT and effective on-the-ground funding cuts. They proposed a merger of Old Parliament House with the National Museum and a merger of the National Portrait Gallery with the National Gallery of Australia. I, like many other people in this community, was extremely surprised to hear that Labor were in favour of forced mergers of cultural institutions because I had heard Labor complaining insistently and vociferously over a number of months about the so-called forced merger of ScreenSound and the Australian Film Commission. Incidentally, Labor actually supported the legislation in this place to provide for that merger to take place. But back then they had complained about what it would mean for those institutions and they had complained about the loss of independence for ScreenSound.

What did we see when the arts policy was released by Labor in the dying days of the campaign? What we saw was not one but two forced mergers of institutions that were arguably not really very much alike and whose missions in each case would be compromised by virtue of that arrangement. It was an unwelcome arrangement. The chair of the board of the National Portrait Gallery was vociferous in her criticism of those arrangements. She said that she was dismayed by the policy and was convinced that Senator Lundy's proposals would mean the end of the National Portrait Gallery. That demonstrates, among other things, that Labor, for all of the three years it had to prepare its arts policy, did not appear to be interested in consulting with any key stakeholders before that policy went into the public domain.

The fact is that the coalition comprehensively trumped Labor on arts policy. When you look around this city at institutions like the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of Australia, extensions to the Australian War Memorial, facilities like Commonwealth Place and Reconciliation Place and other things which have been done in this city in the last few decades, you realise that the policy that the coalition put forward in this election was a continuation of a pattern of endowing Canberra with the sorts of institutions which behove a nation like ours. The coalition has built in this city a number of cultural institutions and other institutions serving the national interest which reflect its commitment to Canberra as a real national capital.

I know that members opposite will be quick to point the finger and say, `The coalition doesn't trust Canberra. The coalition doesn't like Canberra. The coalition doesn't believe in Canberra.' But the coalition has done what it needed to do to make this a city reflective of the diversity and the strength of Australian culture. It has invested in institutions based here in a way which Labor never has. I remind those opposite that in 13 years of government between 1983 and 1996 Labor added nothing—not one thing—to the cultural institutions of this city. It took the Howard government only a matter of a few years to fund, build and open the National Museum of Australia. So next time we hear those complaints about the anti-Canberra coalition, senators might like to reflect on the real record of the coalition in this city.

There are, however, further challenges facing this city which I hope will be addressed in the coming term of government. In particular, I think we need to look at the role of the federal government in supporting the growth and development of Canberra. Canberra has become far more independent of the workings of federal government in recent decades. Its public sector is now smaller than its private sector. There is now something like 60 per cent of the work force working in private enterprise and 40 per cent in the Public Service as opposed to approximately a reversal of that position two or three decades ago. But Canberra is still very much affected by decisions of the federal government. Belconnen and Tuggeranong were very much communities that were developed and which grew as a result of the location of departments and agencies of the Commonwealth government within those townships in such a way as to facilitate the growth and development of those places as business entities and as places to live.

I believe that there is a role for the federal government to do this again, particularly with respect to the newest township in Canberra—Gungahlin. Gungahlin has surged in the last 10 years from a township with a population of about 5,800 to about 30,000 today. It is projected to have a population of 90,000 within the next decade. It will ultimately be, on present projections, the largest township in the ACT. Unfortunately, to date, it has not had a large employment base to go with that growth. Employment bases are important to provide, obviously, the opportunity for employment within the township but, more importantly perhaps, the chance for service businesses within those townships to be able to grow and be servicing both the local population and the people who work in the township. There are other services which are necessary, but I believe that if there is a commitment to providing an employment base in Gungahlin those other services will naturally and inevitably flow. I certainly discussed the issue of support for an employment base in Gungahlin, created courtesy of the Commonwealth, with colleagues in government and I intend to do more of that in the course of the 41st Parliament.

I think the record shows that the stronger result in the ACT for the coalition in the Senate compared with the national average was no accident. It was not the case that there was a rush of blood to the head; it was a very calculated and deliberate decision on the part of ACT residents to send a very clear signal that they did not welcome the approach taken by the Labor Party.

Debate interrupted.