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Thursday, 21 February 2002
Page: 772

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (10:12 AM) —I welcome all of those members who have returned to the parliament, and new members of the chamber. It is a great pleasure to be back here. It is a great honour to be elected to the House of Representatives, but to be re-elected is indeed a very great honour. I thank the people of the north-west coast and King Island for giving me the honour of representing them again.

The election was, from most observers' commentary, a rather strange one in relative terms. I heard it said that the only people who were really interested in the election were the politicians themselves. Given the nature of events surrounding the election, I suppose that is not strange. Australian communities, in many ways, had their consciousness heightened by the whole question of border protection. Events in the United States seriously dampened people's social optimism. The collapse of Ansett militated against any sense of optimism. There was generally a rather pessimistic view in Australian communities, and certainly in mine. I think that probably accounted in many ways for the ascendancy of incumbency, in terms of both government and membership. It is pleasing to see some new members in the House.

In my own electorate I would have to say, again, that there was little engagement in the federal election. I found it personally difficult to engage, because my opposition did not want to personally engage me, and so I found it very difficult to dig them out to enter into some form of social and public engagement on the issues themselves. The people of Tasmania chose, I believe, to support the Australian Labor Party because the Australian Labor Party had a plan for Tasmania. I believe too that the policies that the Australian Labor Party wished to enunciate in the election resonated with the Tasmanian people. Whilst the Tasmanian people have certain views on the important question of border protection and the security of our nation, they were engaged by the actual social and economic policies enunciated by the Australian Labor Party, particularly as they affected issues such as public health—particularly waiting lists for public hospitals, Medicare and Medicare arrangements that we had engaged with in terms of a partnership with the Tasmanian government—and, of course, some very innovative and very important measures related to education.

In my own electorate and in Franklin, the electorate of my colleague Harry Quick, we had a specific plan advancing the north-west coast, with attached funding of some $47 million. It was a genuine recognition of a struggling region. My region is one of those regions, unfortunately, that is struggling in terms of its economic performance anyway. That is certainly beginning to improve; but, in terms of our spirit, we are on the top of the list in helping ourselves. Overall, the Australian Labor Party, I believe, won the hearts and minds of the Tasmanian people because it specifically targeted its policies to Tasmania and that was not lost in the rhetoric and the hype that was unfortunately surrounding the issue of border protection. Of course, some of that rhetoric is now coming home to roost and it will be seen for what it truly is and was: very much a manufactured incident to assure the present government of re-election—but more of that to follow. I thank the people of the north-west coast and King Island for their terrific support and I thank all those people who supported me. We had something like 500 people on the ground, and I would particularly like to thank my campaign team, my loyal and hard-working staff and, of course, my family.

Now I would like to raise some issues in relation to my electorate, and I will be expanding on these throughout this year, next year and the year after, if I have to, and I hope to be able to affect policy in the future. If the government would like to take it up, I would be more than happy, but I would like to feel that my own party and my own colleagues will be taking up these issues. The first of those that I would like to raise is the fact that, when I fly out to Canberra of a Sunday afternoon, I go through an airport where I could drive a tank onto the plane. I could bring a machine gun on, or a bazooka or anything else—the kitchen sink. There is no airport security at my airport at Devonport nor, if I do wish to travel further up the coast, at Burnie. There is no airport security at all for a region of nearly 100,000 people.

We had Minister Anderson on 19 October 2001 talking about airport security in the wake of the terrible events in the United States and the antiterrorism platform and program that we were trying to establish. He was pointing out in that that he would upgrade the security at 29 regional airports and that, where they did not have upgrades of security, security was already appropriate. How can you have `appropriate security' when you have absolutely none at all? When I did arrive at Melbourne airport on one of these occasions, we went through the little security check on persons and bags, and there was only one person there after we got off the Dash 8. This worker said to somebody going through with a bag, `You look as if you have a sharp instrument there. Would you please take it out at the end of the baggage area.' The person was standing there, looking for it and wondering what it was. He opened the bag up, played around with it, and was standing there like a shag on a rock with no security person there at all, and so he closed the bag and walked off. This is into Melbourne airport!

It is bad enough in my own region—and that is replicated throughout regional Australia— but to get to Melbourne airport and have this happen is appalling. I am not being overly alarmist here but, talking about security, I do not know much about carrying out terrorist activities—I do not mind a raid on the opposite side every now and then—but I would not go to the most secure area in Australia to carry out terrorist activities; I would go to the weakest point, and the weakest point in Australia would happen to be in my electorate. It is outrageous! Don't tell me a Dash 8 could not do any damage if someone wanted to use it that way. I take this very seriously, and on behalf of my community I have written to the minister twice but, like most correspondents to the minister, I will probably never hear back again. I take it very seriously. I want the minister to reply. I want security in my region, as I believe there should be in every other part of Australia. If the Commonwealth has to take this over, so be it.

Let me move on to another issue which affects us all—everybody in this room and our communities throughout Australia—public liability. I am happy to promote this issue with my colleagues. I know that both my colleagues in the chamber at the moment have spoken on this. The issue of public liability is affecting our community organisations and social groups. It affects us no matter how much money we have, where we live and what we do. It is a national issue, a national problem. I do not want to point the finger, but I believe the Commonwealth has an important role to play in this area. I think we would all say that. I know the issue is complex, I know it is difficult and I know it has very important federal implications.

Mr Hawker —And it involves state laws too.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —It does involve the states, but section 51 of our Constitution says quite clearly that we have responsibility for the regulation of insurance. So we do have a role here. It is incumbent on all members of the federal parliament to make sure we take up this matter. If we have to do it as a Commonwealth, then let us do it, because what is happening to our community groups is absolutely outrageous. I did a community survey and I got 205 responses from community and sporting organisations. I will not go through the detail of it except to say that the premium increases are outrageous. A number of these organisations have continued to operate without insurance—the major reason being, `We cannot afford it.'

I do not need to teach people how to suck eggs. All I can say is that we have a major national problem here. We in the Commonwealth can do something about it, rather than point the finger and say that it is the states' problem or have one minister say to another in the Commonwealth government: `You don't know what you are talking about. Don't blame the lawyers. You're on the wrong beat. Let's go to the insurance council and blame somebody else.' We have to do something about it as a group. I certainly hope that we do. My other colleagues would no doubt share those sentiments.

I would like to raise another major issue of concern, concern which I am sure is shared by everybody in this chamber. As the people's representatives, we would have had lobbying on this from ordinary, decent, honest Australian families. The issue is the debacle with the family tax benefit debt and the child-care benefit debt. I have had letter after letter and phone call after phone call about it. For the current Minister for Family and Community Services to say that it is adequate, that it is okay, that it does not affect many is absolute nonsense. Again, as the Commonwealth—and I do not care who does it or how we do it—we are going to have to deal with this. People who do the right thing and go in to Centrelink to explain their change in circumstance believe that, in notifying Centrelink of that change in circumstance, readjustments will be made to their payments. It is not acceptable to say to people, `Don't have payments; just make a claim at the end of the financial year and you will get your money and everything will be fine.' What we are talking about here is people who in many cases are right on the margin. These fortnightly payments are absolutely crucial to their budgeting. It is not as if they are trying to rip off the system. The minister rushes out and tells us how many welfare cheats we have, how many people were dobbed in and so forth. If people are doing the wrong thing in the system, so be it, but I wonder how many of those people in those figures that the minister announces are people who have tried to do the right thing but who have ended up with debts. It is totally unacceptable.

I have comments here from people who have written to me and visited me about this. I will not read them all; I am sure other members have also received them. But I want people to hear some of their own words. Melissa Jones from Burnie says:

It seems extremely unfair that this system does not allow for a change in family circumstances. I was told by Centrelink that maybe I should have over-estimated our income. How can you know that a change in your circumstances, such as a redundancy, is going to occur?

We are talking about modern Australia today; we are not talking about a system where everybody has a job for life. The realities are that people lose their jobs sometimes. Sometimes they are in casual employment, sometimes they are part time and sometimes they are full time. They are hit with a redundancy, and off they go. Yet here we are estimating—guesstimating—income for the year. If you make any adjustments throughout that time, you will pay the penalty. And, just to be sure, put some money aside every fortnight—put it in the bank in case you get hit later. This is extraordinary. We will all have to do business degrees to receive benefits. Melissa Jones says:

I agree with the policy of amending our family payments from the time these changes occur, but not with the decision that our family is penalised for the previous months when our estimated income was correct.

I had a very long letter and several meetings with Debbie Freeman and her family from Somerset. She says that when she got the bill:

My reaction was of utmost disgust with a system so totally unexplained, even with brochures, (a copy of which you will find enclosed) ...

When you read it, what do you find? Talk about `bureauspeak'. It makes us look like simpletons. She goes on to say that the brochures:

... omit to say anywhere that you need to over estimate so as not to incur a debt.

You need to overestimate. I believe that, in relation to the last little payout to people, there was a rushed little brochure. `Quick, read this, it will help you pay your debt.' Debbie says:

In closing, I simply wish to voice my absolute disgust with a system that affects the genuine Aussie battling families who are trying to get ahead by honestly earning an income. My only wish is that the thousands of people who will be in receipt of these bills will take it upon themselves to complain and make their concerns heard.

Here is me saying, `Oh, Debbie, she must be a good old Labor voter; I am happy to do that.' No way. She soon put me straight on that. She was disgusted with the system. She is not interested in whether it is Liberal, Labor or Callithumpian doing it: fix it. Such people do pay their taxes, after all. Anthony and Tanya Miller's bill was for $2,655.48. They wrote a very long letter with some interesting suggestions. I passed all these on to the minister and tried to do it positively. The Millers said:

Strangely, the families who need these payments most are the families who are hurt by this system the most. Families who are surviving on a number of casual jobs to make ends meet. How do they know what they are going to earn? In the future of Australian society, more and more people will live this way.

How can anybody say what will happen tomorrow? The Millers went on:

A common sense solution to this problem is to look at previous payments, subtract from what the person is entitled to for the rest of the year and divide that by the remaining payments in the year. No overpayments, no bills. The Taxation Department cross referencing can still check overpayments or underpayments.

It would have been beneficial if at the moment of exceeding our payments we had have been notified so we may have forfeited all further assistance from the FAO for the financial year.

There is no notification that a debt is on the way. Kathryn Jago, again from Burnie, says:

I was always proud never to receive a bill. But not so lucky. Centrelink used to send the previous years income. Why was that changed? The government must be feeling guilty. Why are they paying the first $1,000?

That brings me to the point—and it is not missed on people who are involved in this system— that first of all we get the waiving of $1,000 just prior to November, or October, just prior to the announcement of the election. `We understand there is a problem, so we will waive the first $1,000.' Whoopee. Then, when the notification was meant to come out, the time line was before the election. Curiously—perhaps not surprisingly—it was postponed until now, after the election. All I can say is that there may have been other, I hope more positive, reasons for that. But all I know is that next time people get their debts or their bills they are going to have to remember that there will be no waiver, and those people that missed out this time are going to be in for a rude shock. To say it is adequate is absolute bunkum.

I would like to conclude by raising a really important issue, which I am going to particularly pound when we look at higher education. There are needy people in our community who receive youth allowance and Austudy to assist them to further their studies, and quite rightly so. But the whole system needs a review. The income thresholds are completely inappropriate now. They are at about the level they were at in 1994. I appreciate the importance of providing assistance to people to further their studies, and it is an issue that we should look at.

Another related issue we need to look at is the age of independence—25 and still dependent on your family—if we are interested in the betterment of social psychology in this country. Yet another issue is the parental income threshold. Groups that are right on the margin receive no financial assistance at all, and this is particularly the case in my electorate. Young people in my electorate have no choice but to go away to study at TAFE or university. They cannot do it at home; they have to leave. Because of where they live, they are approximately $10,000 a year worse off than those living in, say, Hobart, Sydney, Melbourne or Launceston, who can access the relevant institutions—universities, the colleges of education and the TAFEs—and can live at home and travel there by tram. Students in my electorate have to go away, and that imposes an extra cost of $10,000. They are discriminated against because of where they live.

The issue of equity has to be looked at. I cannot understand why these students cannot, for instance, claim a tax rebate from their accommodation receipts. It is an issue of equity. Most isolated students can do that. There is a large body of people who get no benefits from the Commonwealth—nor do they ask for them, by the way—but they do want some equity. It is a system we should look at in order to give them some justice. That $10,000 cost virtually ensures that both partners in a family have to work, purely and simply to overcome the discrimination of geography. There is no provision for study for those people. I am going to pound the issue, and I hope others do too, so that we have some equity. (Time expired)