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Tuesday, 27 May 2003
Page: 15105

Mr SECKER (8:02 PM) —I rise with great pleasure to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004. I note that many speakers before me, especially from the other side, have tried to make some case that Medicare is somehow not working and that somehow the changes that we are bringing in to encourage bulk-billing will have the reverse effect. I have just listened quite carefully to the member for Perth, who spent considerable time on this issue, and I have no doubt that he would have quite a high percentage of bulk-billing in his electorate. I have no doubt it would be much higher than in my electorate. In most cases in my electorate, you really have three choices. There is a small amount of bulk-billing, but in most cases a visit to the doctor means an up-front payment of perhaps $35 or more—which would certainly be harder for people than what we are proposing. You would later claim back the schedule fee, if you had the time to put in a Medicare claim. In some cases, you go to the doctor and you pay the difference—you might pay a $10 or $15 difference—and then through the bureaucracy you get sent back the schedule fee, which you then have to take to the doctor. So you have this circle of bureaucracy working.

What we are proposing is a far simpler set-up where, when you go to the doctor, you would pay the difference. In many cases the doctors will be encouraged through our means to increase their bulk-billing, especially to those most in need, which I think is a pretty fair sort of philosophy to have. You would swipe your Medicare card and the doctor would be paid within a couple of days. That is a far more sensible approach to the whole idea of bulk-billing than what we have now. We have an extraordinarily bureaucratic set-up to make payments for the schedule fee, and this would certainly make it much simpler.

It makes me quite proud to be part of a government that has delivered six surplus budgets, considering what it was left with by the previous Labor government, but it makes me even more proud that with this sixth surplus budget the government has been able to deliver further tax cuts to the Australian worker. This government has always been conscious of being a responsible financial manager. Anyone who tries to compare Labor governments and coalition governments from all around Australia—whether they be state or federal—sees the coalition as far better financial managers. That is how this government was seen when two years ago it delivered the largest tax cuts ever to the Australian people, and the government believes in giving as much back as possible wherever possible.

Frankly, with this budget all the Labor Party could complain about was the size of the tax cuts. But I remind the Labor Party that tax cuts are a bit like conjugal delights—even a little bit is a lot better than none at all! From 1 July 2003, Australian taxpayers will benefit from further income tax cuts to the value of $10.7 billion over four years. The increase in the low-income tax offset to $235 means that taxpayers earning between $20,000 and $27,475 per year will benefit from not only the increased tax offset but also the increase in the tax threshold for the 17 per cent rate, which combined will result in tax cuts of up to $329 per annum. A couple of people have said to me: `Well, that's great. I've now got my gas bill for the year paid for.' That is because we have been a responsible government and we have returned those tax cuts to the worker. Benefits of up to $208 through these tax cuts are on the cards for someone earning $45,000 per year, while a taxpayer on $65,000 per year will benefit from $573 in tax cuts per year.

Through sound financial management, this government has ensured that Australian taxpayers will get to keep a higher proportion of their earnings, which in turn provides greater incentives for people to find jobs, take promotion or improve their skills in return for remuneration. Of course, if you have more money to spend instead of the government spending it on your behalf, it gives you a little more freedom in the choice of how your wages are spent. Australia has survived a very difficult period in the international economic environment. Our economy has continued to grow to one of the best in the Western world, probably the best of all the OECD countries. I maintain that, without the strong economic management of this government, we would not be so well placed.

These tax cuts that we are delivering will also benefit senior Australians. The increase in the senior Australians tax offset thresholds means that senior Australians eligible for this offset will now not pay tax on annual income of up to $20,500 for singles and up to $33,612 for couples. I think one of the great things this government has done is to make it easier for self-funded retirees to survive and live in comfort. Additionally, senior Australians will also benefit from the increased Medicare levy threshold because they will not pay the levy unless they incur an income tax liability. That is very important for the seniors who rely on aged care—more so than for younger people, who tend to be more healthy.

I think it is great to see our sound economic policies delivering not only for our nation but for the taxpayers as well, and I am extremely proud to be a part of that. Our nation will continue to benefit from our sound economic management, as we continue to keep our net debt low. We have always put a great emphasis on reducing the huge debt left to us by the previous Labor government. I am indebted to the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government, who is at the dispatch box, for providing the following figures. In 1991, after 90 years of federation and after two world wars, the Depression and several droughts, floods and bushfires, the net federal debt was $16 billion. Five years later, under the Keating-Beazley Labor government, the debt level was out of control and had ballooned to $96 billion. It had increased sixfold in that time. We all know that, historically, the ALP are big spenders, but to get the debt level to $96 billion is, frankly, unfathomable.

The coalition took over the reins in 1996 and vowed to reduce the enormous debt left to us by the former Keating government. We have, I am pleased to say, now reduced that debt by two-thirds to $33 billion. It is still falling and projected to be $29 million by the end of the next financial year. The importance of this is that the federal government can now spend $4.6 billion extra per year on services with funds that were formerly paid out in interest. This means less pressure on interest rates, and the lowest interest rates and inflation rates in 30 years.

So, to recap, the Howard coalition government has delivered six surplus budgets and the biggest tax cuts that the Australian people have ever received, and it has reduced Labor's debt by two-thirds. We now have the lowest interest rates and inflation rates in 30 years. It has also managed to deliver further tax cuts to the Australian people in this budget. Not even those opposite could deny that this is a pretty impressive record, one that I am sure they are extremely jealous of.

Also in this budget is a provision to safeguard our community. In this increased climate of international uncertainty, where terrorist attacks have, unfortunately, not become uncommon, it is important that we provide to enhance Australia's security. This government is committed to doing just that, and that is why it has allocated significant new funding to domestic security initiatives to protect critical infrastructure and to provide for enhanced intelligence and security services. Following announcements made in the 2001-02 budget which allowed for an additional $1.4 billion over the following five years to upgrade Australia's security, this year's budget has provided $411 million over the five years from 2002-03 to further improve these security measures. Upgraded security infrastructure at our ports, airports and nuclear research facilities will be provided at a cost of $148 million, while state-of-the-art X-ray machinery will be used to examine shipping containers, whose movement will be monitored to allow easier location of suspect containers. An amount of $152 million has been allocated to improve Australia's intelligence agencies, and a national security hotline has been established to enable suspicious activity to be reported. A further $111 million will upgrade the country's protective security services.

One reason why I am so proud to be a part of this government is that we have such a broad based focus on the Australian community. Not only do we show such strong economic leadership but we also pay attention to all sectors of the community and make every effort to ensure that all sectors of it benefit wherever possible from our decisions. Representing a rural electorate and coming from a rural area, I have a particular interest in what our government offers rural Australians. Unlike our state counterparts—who, I might add, are all Labor governments and who historically do not acknowledge that rural Australia even exists—we are very conscious not only of the contribution that rural Australian businesses make to our nation's economy but also of the contribution that rural Australians make as a whole. In keeping with this, the government have been very careful to provide rural and regional Australia with the support that it needs to continue this success.

This year's budget has provided much support to regional Australia as a whole and, in fact, has provided much support to regions in my electorate of Barker as well. Much of regional Australia has suffered as a result of one of the most extensive droughts on record, and my electorate of Barker is no different. Much of the Mallee suffered under this big dry and many farmers have had much to deal with simply to survive. As a result, this government, through this budget, intends to provide $750 million over four years to help farmers, small businesses and regional communities with direct financial assistance, personal counselling, employment services and tax relief. In recognition of the contribution that Australia's agricultural base and environmental resources make to our nation, the government is providing assistance to protect them. Through this funding the government wants to encourage farmers and rural communities to adopt practices that mean that farming is sustainable and more resistant to future droughts so that the impact is more manageable.

The government is aware of the damage that natural disasters cause. It has provided around $100 million in 2003-04 to help communities recover when natural disasters strike. Just like the fires that ravaged eastern Australia earlier this year, natural disasters cause much devastation and suffering when they hit. This government is working with state and territory governments to establish a natural approach to natural disaster mitigation and to reduce the loss of life and property in the event of such a disaster. The government will provide $69 million over five years, conditional on state or territory matched funding and the implementation of more effective land use and building controls. It is hoped that, through this combined effort, regions will be much better prepared to deal with natural disasters and, as a result, the impact of these disasters will not be as great.

Just as we provide funding for unpleasant things such as natural disasters, this budget provides funding to a range of regional programs to support strengthened growth and opportunities in regional Australia, to improve access to services, to support planning and to assist structural adjustment for communities. This budget has provided for Regional Partnerships—an integrated program that combines all regional funding programs with the exception of Sustainable Solutions. The new program, with additional funding of $62 million over three years, will strengthen the role of the government's network of area consultative committees. The program is based on our partnership approach, which enables communities to develop their own priorities and then access government support to help make their priorities become reality.

Already my electorate of Barker—in particular, the south-east—has benefited from Regional Partnerships. Regional Solutions funding, which now comes under Regional Partnerships, has provided $288,000 worth of grants that have seen two important community projects come to fruition. The Kingston District Council has secured a $200,000 grant to construct a solar heated, half Olympic size pool at the Kingston Community School, the construction of which will mean that not only will the students have a great facility to learn to swim in but the community will also benefit, with the school's sporting facilities being open to the community outside school hours. This will be a valuable addition to what is already available in the district. I was speaking with the chairman, Evan Flint, on Sunday and he was very pleased with that result. The project came to fruition after much planning by the local community. I would like to take this opportunity to officially recognise the efforts of all involved but particularly those of Mr Grant Murray, the former principal of Kingston Community School, and Mr Stephen Rufus, CEO of the Kingston District Council, who worked very hard to see this project through.

Like the efforts of those two people, the efforts of the CEO of the Naracoorte-Lucindale Council, Mr Dennis Hovenden, and Karen Proud were instrumental in securing Regional Solutions funding of $88,000 to assist with the development of Market Square in Naracoorte into a recreational facility for all age groups. It is an exciting project for Naracoorte. Through the federal government-local community partnership, the facility will provide for the sporting and passive recreation needs of community groups in Naracoorte as well as of visitors from other parts of the south-east and elsewhere. Naracoorte is the gateway to the Naracoorte Caves, one of the few World Heritage listed areas in Australia.

This budget announcement of an extra $62 million over three years is very important to regional Australians. Through Regional Partnerships we can see very real results being achieved across rural Australia, and the government are working hard to ensure that these positive changes continue. Regional Australians also benefit from the extension of Farm Help, announced in this budget. Prior to this budget the closing date for applications was 30 November 2003; however, following the success of this program in helping farmers, the government have extended the application date to benefit the farming community. This is yet another reason why I am proud to be a part of this government. We continue to listen to the regions, which fell into such a rapid decline under the Keating Labor government, and we work with the regions to get things done. We acknowledge the seriousness of the problems that the regions face, and we work towards helping these regions to improve the situations that they face.

A good example of this is the announcement of the allocation of $16.6 million to the Murray-Darling Basin initiative. The Commonwealth government and appropriate state governments in the basin have agreed to coordinate their approach to dealing with resource management for sustainable use. We are all aware of the importance of the basin to our national economy. This underlines the need to ensure that the condition of the basin's natural resources is maintained for profitable use and for the benefit of all Australians. The challenge for government, industries and communities is to agree on how to continue operating this environment for everyone's benefit whilst ensuring that we are not further depleting an already dwindling resource. We intend to provide this $16.6 million to assist the Murray-Darling Basin Commission and all relevant jurisdictions to look seriously at the problems faced by the Murray-Darling Basin and to work out the best possible method to fix them. Jurisdictions will have to act together under the COAG water processes to ensure regulatory regimes in states and territories can deliver these outcomes, not just in the Murray-Darling Basin but throughout the rest of Australia as well.

Once again the federal government, through this budget, are providing assistance to work with interested parties—just like we do with the regions—to fix the problems that are faced by this country. We are conscious of providing funding to areas that need it most. In fact, through this budget, the federal government have reaffirmed our commitment to the health and wellbeing of rural Australians. With some rural and regional communities still facing difficulty, we are doing our best. (Time expired)