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Thursday, 29 May 2003
Page: 15411

Mrs CROSIO (10:43 AM) —I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2003-2004. The budget papers tabled by the Treasurer provide the Australian public with a stark choice—a government driven by an ideological obsession to move service provision away from the state and into the private sector, or the Labor Party, which is committed to providing what we regard as essential services to our community. And no two areas are more important for the wellbeing of our society than health and education. The government has decided that these two areas of public policy require reform. I cannot argue with that. After seven years of dwindling funding from the government, they obviously do. However, it has decided that individuals and families will have to take it upon themselves to fund their own health and education needs.

Ironically, even though the government has decided that it intends to reduce its role as a service provider, it is increasing its intake of revenue from the community. Full of irony, isn't it? Taxing the life out of the battlers so it can get its spin doctors to crow about a budget surplus. It is great for the financial markets but cruel to ordinary families. The tactical wizards decided, `Wouldn't it be smart to cut services but introduce tax cuts. Brilliant! The punters will go for that one, just like they did with the kids overboard story.' So the message went to Treasury to find a way to provide tax cuts and still keep the surplus intact. The government's great plan: $4 a week for the average family and an $11 tax cut for those who did not really need it.

The amount provided in the tax cuts shows that, even though revenue is pouring in and services are being cut to the bone, there really was not much room for cuts of significance. So why is it all so tight? The answer: largesse. This government is quite flippant about spending inordinate amounts of money on consultants, advisers, subcontractors and glossy PR brochures to extol the virtues of its benevolence, but it cringes at the thought of spending anything on the battlers who put its members on the Treasury benches. It was quite okay to pay for two occupants at Yarralumla, on full pay, but it was not okay to make it easier for a smart kid from Western Sydney to study medicine, law or accounting at our universities.

I now turn to the government's so-called Medicare reform package. As I stated earlier, I have no gripes about reforming the Medicare system, but the government is using the term to mask its ultimate aim—destruction. Since 1996, this Howard government's neglect of Medicare has cost ordinary Australian families $123 million extra a year. This is before the so-called reforms. We can only imagine what the impost will be on families if the Prime Minister's reforms are passed.

At the present time, my electorate does not have a problem with bulk-billing. The doctors in Fairfield, St Clair and Greystanes overwhelmingly bulk-bill their patients. They know that their patients are not that well off. Many are pensioners and concession card holders, so they will be fine in the short term. But the vast majority are young families. What will happen to them? I can remember the days before Medibank when you really had to hope that you had a charitable doctor who, when you had to make an emergency visit with a sick child, would kindly forgo the fee because you just did not have the money at that moment.

So, again, this Prime Minister is trying to force on us a scheme that suits his ideal world of the 1950s. This Prime Minister is convinced that the world would be a better place without all families having access to adequate health care. He would rather see the already extremely stretched public hospital system take on the even greater load which will undoubtedly result from the Howard changes. People in this civilised society are not just going to lie down and die. They will use whatever avenues they can afford to seek assistance for themselves and their children.

However, what has the government done? It has moved $918 million over five years from the Australian health care agreements, which help fund our public hospital system, to pay for its Medicare package. What a creative piece of accounting and a disgraceful form of public policy. Populate or perish? Who would want to have kids when they have this impost imposed on them? The Hawke government introduced Medicare in 1984, and it took about 12 years to get bulk-billing to the level of 80 percent. It has taken only seven years for the Howard government to reduce bulk-billing by nearly 12 per cent, to 68.5 per cent nationally.

All the while, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health and Ageing refuse to guarantee that the rate of bulk-billing will not continue to fall. So, if the Senate passes the government's proposals, we will see families who earn over $32,300 a year—the vast majority of my community—without access to bulk-billing as we know it today. Talk about means testing? This is mean spirited indeed. I have heard government members—and just now as well—state that all will be well, that doctors will not have to increase their fees because they will be reimbursed for bulk-billing pensioners and concession card holders. The AMA President, Kerryn Phelps, has publicly indicated that doctors will have to increase their fees. She said:

What will need to happen is that for doctors to continue to bulk bill their concession card holders, they're going to have to charge their non-concession card holders more.

So there you have it: the doctors admit that they will have to charge more. The doctors have also stated—and I am pleased to see it—that Labor's plan for Medicare is the better of the two. The difference is that we on this side of the House believe that the state has a vested interest in providing adequate health care services for its people. We believe that, in a civilised society, all people, regardless of their social standing and wealth, have the right to this service. We are not arguing over choice. We believe that people should have the right to choose which facilities and what type of care they require. However, the government's plans impinge upon the right of many families to choose.

Ordinary families will have no choice whatsoever. We in the Labor Party believe that everybody should have a choice. The Labor plan rewards doctors who continue bulk-billing. The incentives are there. Our plan will provide doctors in my electorate with an additional $7,500 a year for bulk-billing 80 percent or more of their patients. When we are in power, nearly all the doctors in my electorate and across Australia will receive this incentive payment. And they deserve it. Most of the doctors have tried to maintain a bulk-billing service, but the government's changes, I fear, will see this rate drop dramatically.

Added to the increased cost of seeing the doctor is the government's plan from the last budget to increase the cost of essential medicines. If the government got its way, we would see ordinary families not only paying more for walking through the doctor's door but, if they required medication, paying 30 percent more at the chemist. If the government signs its much feted free trade agreement with the United States—and the abolition of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is really part of the agreement—then the sky is the limit as to what people will be forced to pay for a range of medicines.

The picture so far: the government has given you $4 a week. This is an act of benevolence that we should all be grateful for, according to its acolytes. However, for this generous $4, we should sacrifice a few things. Firstly, do not in any circumstances get sick. If you do, there goes your $4. So make sure you stay perfectly well. Secondly, do not try to improve yourself by obtaining a higher education. If you do not have the money then take out a loan under the Nelson plan. The Minister for Education, Science and Training tells us that we can borrow $50,000 at 3½ per cent, plus CPI—over six per cent if you took a loan out today—and that will go only halfway toward covering the cost of some degrees.

This government's education policy is unapologetically geared to the top end of town. Since the Howard government took office, on average more than 20,000 qualified students have been turned away from our universities each year. These are intelligent young people thwarted not by their lack of effort or diligence but by the lack of funding by this government. Since 1996, the government has slashed university funding by $5 billion and, at the same time, more than doubled HECS fees and lowered the threshold. The one positive to come out of this package is that the government has recognised its folly from a few years ago and raised that threshold now to a more reasonable level of $30,000. However, as always with this government, there is a catch. Universities will be able to increase their HECS fees by 30 per cent. Over the last seven years, the top rate of HECS has increased from $2,442 to $8,355. So when you add the 30 per cent increase on the average HECS fee you are looking at an increased cost to students and their families of over $1,650 per year within the next two years. Break it down and you have that added cost of an extra $32 per week. Since 1996, the average HECS fee has more than doubled—up by 116 per cent.

The Department of Education, Science and Training has admitted that student debt is to rise to astronomical levels. By 2006-07, student debt will be $13.2 billion. And we are supposed to applaud that? There are young people out there improving themselves, and the benefit that will come to us as a society will be immense. What does this government do in its so-called wisdom? It punishes them by imposing upon them, before they begin their careers, a very significant level of debt. In essence, slowly but surely, we are seeing the Americanisation of our education system whereby parents, from the birth of their child—in other words, from the cradle—will have to save up for their child's higher education. Is that what the average Australian people want? I know my constituents are stridently against this.

I also note that in the budget papers there is not one extra cent to support TAFE, our technical and further education institutions, and no mention of any new training initiatives. The government tends to make great play of its New Apprenticeships scheme; however, this scheme has failed to address skills shortages in critical areas. Heather Ridout of the Australian Industry Group—AIG—has said there has been an `alarming fall in technical and engineering apprenticeships'. Since 1995, there has been a 35 per cent decline in engineering enrolments in TAFE colleges in NSW, not due to a lack of demand from employers for youngsters in those trades but due to the lack of serious funding from this government. The latest data indicate that there has been a decline in the number of people taking up traditional trades, including carpentry, panel beating, motor mechanics and plumbing—only 6,000 in the December quarter of 2002. That is the lowest in over four years.

One significant move in this budget, which shows a terrible lack of foresight, is the abolition of the Enterprise and Career Education Foundation, or ECEF as it is referred to. For the government it is a saving of a measly $4.1 million over four years, but for the students involved it is a severe setback. This program received strong praise from the business community for bringing students and industry together to assist the students in developing their skills and enhancing their career prospects. This is yet another policy area where Labor and the government are poles apart. We believe that the government should be proactive in devising strategies to assist business to rectify problem areas such as skills shortages, but the government believe that the market will sort it out. The market needs the skills but we are not providing them, so businesses have no option but to search offshore for labour or, even worse, to move offshore. The result is an increasing number of unemployed people who end up being chronically unemployed, with all its social consequences. All it requires is for the government to be proactive.

The government tends to have no shortage of money when it comes to funding private schools. We are talking about not small private schools but the large established institutions that have never had trouble raising funds. They tend to have no problem at all in raising their fees while putting their hands out for government funds. State schools get a pittance. The government will argue that they are the states' responsibility, but I thought private schools were as well. I presume there are different rules for different people. The hypocrisy shines brightly from this government.

What does this budget provide for the majority of Australian women? Absolutely nothing. The government have shown throughout their period in office that they take women for granted. They gladly take their votes but they provide little in return. If you are a young woman established in a career and then want to start a family, you have one choice: leave your job and stay at home. The failed baby bonus will look after you. Providing token financial assistance for women to stay at home is uncharitable in the extreme. This has been shown by the poor take-up rate for the baby bonus. The government should be looking at the economics of having children as a major part of their social policy. However, the government refuse to countenance a scheme of paid maternity leave which, as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Pru Goward, has stated, would be of significant benefit for women and families. Most countries that are members of the OECD have some form of paid maternity leave—except for Australia and the United States. If Australia is serious about addressing the decline in the birthrate without a significant increase in the rate of immigration, then the whole of government needs to come up with a plan to examine this growing problem.

The other problem for working mothers is the ridiculously expensive cost of child care. A couple of months ago I asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs a question on notice regarding the number of child care places and the average cost of those places in my electorate, but he could not answer the part of the question on the average cost. `No data was available,' was the reply. No wonder the government has no idea what the struggle is like out there for women in the real world. Maybe it does not want to know how hard it is. I can inform the minister that people in my electorate are paying upwards of $10,000 per year for long day care. If you add this to the increased cost of going to the doctor, paying more for the kids' medicines and saving every spare cent you have from the rolling tax cuts the government promises to implement so as to pay for the children's higher education, it is no wonder women are beside themselves as to how they can properly take care of their families and themselves.

The government will claim that it is unable to afford to spend in these areas, but why not? Is this not the highest taxing government we have ever seen? The tax cuts that have been provided by the government are so small that they will not return any of the increases in revenue caused by inflation. The $4 a week for people on average incomes, earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, will in no way cover increased health, education and child care costs. It will not get anywhere it. People earning over $75,000 a year will receive almost three times the tax cut of ordinary workers and part-time workers, who will receive only a pittance of $1.63 a week. Many women work part time and, again, this government treats them with contempt.

Before the government introduced the goods and services tax, they promised they would abolish all so-called hidden taxes. Can the government look straight into the Australian people's eyes and swear that they have not introduced any new hidden taxes? The truth is they cannot—even though they call these taxes `levies'. There is the Ansett tax; the sugar tax; the dairy tax; the Sydney airport tax; and an increased excise on LPG, a clean fuel. If there is any new form of revenue taking they can think of, the government will implement it. The government will do anything to con the Australian people into believing that they are giving back more than they are taking.

The Treasurer stands proud at his honour of being the highest taxing treasurer in Australia's history. What an achievement! He has grabbed more than $3.3 billion from ordinary workers, just this year, in bracket creep. Has this been returned through these tax cuts? No. The government has a hide to extol its virtues. There has never been a government more reliant on income tax than this government, and there probably has never been a government more committed to cutting services to the Australian people.

The Leader of the Opposition in his budget reply speech raised another issue that should be a paramount priority for any Commonwealth government, and that is the saving of the Murray River and tackling the problem of salinity. I do not believe that the importance of this environmental issue has been argued strongly enough yet to the Australian people. As the driest continent on earth, water is a precious resource. I think many people, particularly on the eastern seaboard, take for granted the amount of water we have at our disposal. Hopefully the drought has opened up some people's minds to the conservation of our water resources.

The saving of the Murray River is extremely important, and so is the end of land clearing. I must commend the government for getting close to an agreement with the Queensland government on the issue of land clearing. However, Labor's plan to create the Murray-Darling Riverbank is a great innovation to attempt to achieve and secure the large amounts of funding necessary and to create the climate of cooperation that is so desperately required between the Commonwealth, the states, local government and the private sector. I can testify to the almighty problems involved in trying to get cooperation over the conservation of the Murray-Darling network from my own experiences as the New South Wales Minister for Natural Resources in the 1980s.

With the recent downpour in Sydney the issue of flooding has come to a head again. As a long-term resident and representative of the Fairfield area, I have seen at first-hand the damage that serious floods can do to our community. While Minister for Natural Resources in 1984-85 in New South Wales, I introduced a funding arrangement for the state government to assist councils in flood mitigation works. A few years later, after lobbying the Hawke government, the Commonwealth then made a contribution which led to the 2:2:1 system—in other words, for every dollar spent by council you got $2 from the state and $2 from the Commonwealth.

This government abolished that system, reasoning that, in particular, metropolitan councils could raise the funds required for flood mitigation works. The people in the regions got upset, so the government implemented the Regional Flood Mitigation Program in 1999. A couple of years later, the government expanded the eligibility criteria to include outer metropolitan areas. The government stipulated that a rigid definition of what constitutes an inner or outer metropolitan area under the plan had not been set as many councils have significant demographic variations within their boundaries.

It would appear that the government has left that definition deliberately ambiguous—ambiguous enough for Parramatta City Council to be classified as outer metropolitan but Fairfield City Council is not. My geographic skills are not bad, and it would appear to me that parts of the Fairfield City area are substantially further west from the city and could be classified as semi-rural compared with Parramatta. As part of this scheme, Parramatta was allocated $950,000 for this financial year for voluntary purchase purposes; Fairfield got nothing. (Time expired)