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Wednesday, 11 November 1998
Page: 74

Ms HALL (11:29 AM) —I would like to acknowledge the member for Charlton's kind words and say that I look forward to working with her. Today is a significant day for me. It is the occasion of my first speech in this most important parliament in Australia. It is Remembrance Day and it is also the anniversary of the day the Whitlam government's mandate was withdrawn by a hostile coalition Senate and a Governor-General who was not elected by the people, a day which is of particular significance for me because it was the catalyst that led to me joining the Australian Labor Party, becoming politically active and making this speech today. I have always believed that the role of government is an inclusive one where the interests of all people and groups in the community are taken into account and no one group is advantaged at the expense of another.

Good government is inclusive. It is about developing a sense of community so that every person in that community is able to benefit from the resources, wealth and services of the country. The Whitlam government sought to do this. It was a government that had vision—the vision to share the wealth of the country with all Australians to create a just society where everyone in the community had an equal opportunity to succeed. One of its greatest reforms was the change to tertiary education, a change that made university education accessible and affordable for everyone, not just a few privileged Australians. It was a change that created opportunity for many Australians, myself included.

Before progressing any further, I would like to thank the people who have supported and assisted me in the recent election. Firstly, I would like to thank my campaign director, Peter Morris, my predecessor. In doing so, I would like to acknowledge his achievements as a federal member, minister in the Hawke government and the work he has done over the years, particularly in the area of transport and shipping. He provided the highest level of service to Shortland, the Hunter and Australia over 26 years. Peter Morris is acknowledged as one of the finest, if not the finest, transport minister Australia has ever had.

I would also like to thank each and every member of the Australian Labor Party in Shortland and my family for their hard work during our long campaign. It is appropriate for me to make a special mention of the Maritime Union and the CFMEU for their tireless work. Their contribution to our local campaign was enormous.

Finally, and most importantly, I would like to thank the people of Shortland for their support and the trust they have placed in me. They can be assured that I will represent everyone in our community equally and will always be accessible. It is my goal to develop those things that make our community special and to create more and better opportunities for everyone in Shortland.

Shortland is a very special electorate. It includes part of the Hunter and Central Coast regions of New South Wales. It is an environmentally sensitive area. It is nestled between the Pacific Ocean and an extensive lake system. Shortland is home to some of the most sensational and fragile coastal areas in Australia. These areas must be protected for future generations, and the ecology preserved.

Because of Shortland's unique and special environment, it is under attack from people seeking to exploit and destroy those things that make it special. Conservative state and local governments have sought in the past to force inappropriate development on the local community and destroy the fragile environment. A number of these issues still remain unresolved. With BHP seeking development approval for residential development in the Belmont wetlands area, history could repeat itself if this development is imposed on the community against its wishes. I have listened to the people in our community and I will join with them to fight inappropriate development.

The environment in Shortland is so special that its promotion and protection will create opportunities for new jobs and a secure economic future for the area. Its destruction will lead to lost opportunities. Unfortunately, the Howard government chose to ignore two submissions for funding from Lake Macquarie City Council to the Natural Heritage Trust. These proposals for a foreshore park at Green Point on the shores of Lake Macquarie and the Fernleigh track were both endorsed by the community. Both enhanced and protected the environment. Both created jobs, a basis for future opportunity and expansion of the local economic base.

But this government, in its wisdom, chose to ignore these projects and the aspirations of the Shortland community, just as the previous Howard government chose to ignore the people of Shortland when it closed the Belmont Medicare office, the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service at Charlestown, the Belmont CES and stopped the Centrelink visiting service to Swansea.

The Howard government has waged an unrelenting assault on public sector jobs in the Hunter and on the Central Coast, slashing services and lengthening unemployment queues. The insecurity caused by the mean-spirited policies of this government is particularly apparent on the Central Coast. The policies and lack of commitment to regional ism are punishing the people of the Central Coast. Its failure to attack new industries to the region is forcing people to travel by car to Sydney on a daily basis because of the inadequate transport systems and limited job opportunities.

This government is giving every sign that it will be an even bigger disaster, with its intention to force its GST on the Australian people without proper consultation or consideration. It will cause dissension, division and alienation within the community of Shortland and Australia, where the majority of people voted against this tax and they object to it being imposed without proper consultation.

Prior to the October election, people in Shortland expressed their despair at the impact that they feared the GST would have. Women voted in greater numbers for the Australian Labor Party than for this government because they could see the negative and regressive impact the tax would have on them and their families.

The Howard government has demonstrated a harsh approach to child care, health care and aged care, which has alienated women even further. Its preoccupation with economic matters and dismissal of issues affecting the daily lives of women and their families have led to their becoming very disillusioned with the government, and this disillusionment will grow.

At a time in history when countries and governments throughout the world are facing enormous economic and social challenges and when there is a great need for governments to show leadership and initiative, Australia has a government that is abrogating its responsibility and refusing to show any leadership—any leadership at all.

Instead of looking for new and innovative ways to address the problems caused by the global economy and a changing economic and social environment, this government has adopted policies that are directed at punishing those people who are the victims of this changing internal and external world.

Shortland is an electorate where the changing world environment is impacting directly on the lives, opportunities and self-image of everyone. Micro-economic reform, the impact of the global world economy, privatisation and the current economic climate have led to a reduction in employment in traditional areas.

Changes in employment and in the economic base of the Shortland electorate were very apparent in the recent census which showed that the Shortland electorate had an unemployment rate of 12 per cent, with three out of four electorates throughout Australia having a lower unemployment figure than Shortland. The median or middle income level for families in Shortland is $621 a week, which places it below the national average of $729 a week. Shortland has a labour force participation rate of 53.3 per cent, which is the 13th lowest participation rate in Australia.

If these figures are compared with the Prime Minister's electorate of Bennelong, the differences are apparent. In Bennelong, the unemployment rate is five per cent. The median weekly family income is $975 and the participation rate is 61.1 per cent. This comparison demonstrates how societal and economic changes have impacted to a greater extent in Shortland than in the more affluent electorate of the Prime Minister. It also demonstrates that the government's policies are failing to address the needs of the people of Shortland and are failing to address the needs of ordinary Australians, people who have to support their families on $621 a week.

These are good, hardworking Australians who have a great deal to offer and are willing to meet the challenges of the changing world and social environment. In order to meet these challenges, they need leadership, intervention and government policies that will enable them to make this transition. The ability of a person to find and maintain a job is their basic right. That is why we on this side of the House made a commitment to reduce unemployment to five per cent. Unfortunately, this government is not prepared to make a similar commitment; rather it chose to decimate the services that assist people to find jobs.

The new Job Network is a disaster and this government's latest decision to cut 5,000 staff from Centrelink, a service that is already understaffed, will only lead to a further reduction of service to unemployed people. The Hunter is one of the worst hit areas in Australia. It will lose 230 staff from its customer service centres, a cut of almost 18 per cent. Once again, this government is demonstrating its contempt for the people of the Hunter. I do not share the government's belief that the answer to reducing unemployment is to cut services. Unemployed people can only find jobs when governments introduce innovative programs and policies that give unemployed people the training, skills and opportunities they need to find jobs, whilst encouraging industry to expand.

The Howard government's approach to the changing economic and work environment has been to attack the wages and conditions of workers. The reduction in the power of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission is to the detriment of workers. Its inability to intervene in Australian workplace agreements has reduced the protection available to workers. This government says it is using the Workplace Relations Act to support localised employment agreements between employers and employees, but if a localised employment agreement is reached that is contrary to the government's expectations, then the agreement will not be ratified. If the aim of the Workplace Relations Act is to create simplicity and flexibility through a direct relationship between the employer and employee, why are these agreements being refused ratification?

The government's agenda is obviously to reduce the power of the worker in the bargaining process and lead to a reduction in wages and conditions whilst at the same time reducing the power of the trade union movement. This government's hatred of unionists and workers was most visually demonstrated during the recent dispute between Patrick Stevedoring Company and the Maritime Union of Australia when it, in effect, sanctioned the sacking of an entire work force. It was an act that turned Australian against Australian and yet again demonstrated an exclusive and divisive approach to government. It is an approach that ignores consulta tion, it ignores the wish of the community and is authoritarian and ruthless.

Another trademark of the Howard government has been the war it waged against the people in greatest need in our community: the elderly, young families and people on low incomes. It has waged a ruthless attack on the health system, slashing funds to the states, causing long waiting lists and distress for people waiting for surgery. Its attacks on elderly Australians needing nursing home care and families needing child care have caused distress within the community.

Shortland is an electorate where a large proportion of the population is aged over 65. As His Excellency the Governor-General pointed out, 1999 is the International Year of Older Persons and this heartless, uncaring government's present to older people will be a GST, the erosion of aged care, increasing health costs and decreasing health services. This government's legacy to older Australians is increasing hardship and insecurity.

One of the keys to creating opportunities for the future is investing in education and ensuring its availability to all Australians. Recent changes to education are signalling a return to the times when, if you came from an advantaged background, you were assured of quality education. The last two coalition budgets reduced university grants. Universities are experiencing the impact of this now, with courses being slashed and research curtailed. The changes to the HECS scheme are creating an enormous barrier for students from ordinary Australian families and disadvantaged backgrounds and the cutting of funds to government schools is creating a two-tiered education system.

It is the responsibility of governments to ensure that all children receive an education. The quality of this education should not be determined by a person's ability to pay. If a country is to thrive in the current world environment, then all students must have equal access to education and the quality of that education must be determined by a student's need, not by their ability to pay.

In the future, there will be a greater need for good literacy and numeracy skills and a higher level of educational, technical and work skills. The ability to obtain these skills should be one of the foremost functions of government. It is essential that governments intervene and not leave this to market forces. If they do not intervene, then it will create a divided multitiered society, with a person's future and aspirations being determined by their ability to pay. This is the Australia which I fear this government is seeking to promote. It is not an inclusive, caring, communal society; rather it is divisive and lacks any sense of community.

For jobs and sustained economic growth, Australia needs innovative industry policy and a strong economic industry base. This government's industry policy is marked by a lack of commitment to research and development and regional Australia. For Australian industry to expand and create opportunities for the future, there needs to be encouragement for companies to invest in research and development.

Without a commitment to the future, and without government encouraging this commitment, there will be no innovation or new ideas in Australia: companies will continue to go offshore, which will lead to further job losses. There will be a further alienation of workers and a breakdown in our societal structures and communities.

This is not the Australia I want, and it is not the Australia that will benefit the people of Shortland. Australia is a country that can enjoy a great and prosperous future. The people of Shortland can share this prosperity. Shortland has a diverse work force, and it is situated close to the port of Newcastle. It has excellent infrastructure linking it to the rest of Australia, and it is able to access Australia and the world through the Internet, which creates unlimited opportunities for the future.

The Hunter and Central Coast regions are set to take the new millennium by storm. All we need is vision, commitment and support from this government. Unfortunately, I do not think that this mean, miserable government has the ability, the commitment or inclination to provide that support. Therefore, I will work with my community, and other communities in the Hunter and on the Central Coast, and their elected state and federal members of parliament, to create that initiative at a local level and foster regional development.

Australia is on the eve of considering constitutional reform. Part of those considerations should include a deliberation on the need to move to longer and set term parliaments. For a government to be truly effective, it must have the ability to plan and consult with the community prior to implementing its policies. Currently, the terms of government in this legislature are, on an average, well under three years. I believe that this is unacceptable and inhibits good government. At a time when we are looking at constitutional reform, this is an issue that must be addressed. It would also be of benefit to Australia if there were an evaluation of the role, responsibility and relevance of all tiers of government.

Australia is a country with great potential. Its greatest asset is its people, and it is the role of government to represent all those people, not just some. The role of an elected representative is a very responsible one. It is one I have had the privilege to hold at a local, state and now federal level. It is a responsibility I take very seriously. I look forward to serving the people of Shortland and to fighting for greater opportunities, more jobs and a better deal for all people in our community.

Opposition members —Hear, hear!

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Jenkins) —Before I call the honourable member for Barker, I remind the House that this is the honourable member's first speech. I ask the House to extend to him the usual courtesies.