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Wednesday, 15 October 2003
Page: 21502

Mr ANTHONY (Minister for Children and Youth Affairs) (4:06 PM) —In contributing to the debate on the matter of public importance, I note the contribution made by the member for Lilley. In rebuttal of some of his comments, I would like to first highlight that much of the debate and what the member for Lilley has talked about centre on the statement that the opposition released about how they would allegedly combat poverty. Of course, to combat poverty or to raise the expectations and living standards of Australians, it is very important that their spokesperson has credibility—in other words, that they practise what they preach.

The member for Lilley parades himself as a great champion of the downtrodden and professes to help the disadvantaged. I will not dwell on it, but I was rather amused and interested to read in the paper that, whilst he is a great advocate—and whilst he scares a lot of the mums and dads in Australia—whether it is of pensions, the family tax benefit or those who are perhaps less fortunate than parliamentarians, the member for Lilley was quite happy yesterday, contrary to his leader's expression, about accepting a $16,000 taxpayer payment if he lost office.

Mr Swan —Mr Deputy Speaker, I raise a point of order. That is a lie—I did not say that.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—The member for Lilley will withdraw that statement.

Mr Swan —I withdraw it. That was an untruth.

Mr ANTHONY —Let me clarify that. I will quote him. He said:

I would accept a payment made to me legally ... The Remuneration Tribunal is there to make decisions so that politicians don't have their hands in the cookie jar.

I very much understand why average Australians are upset by what they see as a double standard ... and that's why it is important that politicians aren't in there deciding their own terms and conditions.

He was quite happy to accept a payment that I do not think the Australian public thinks is appropriate. Here is someone who is meant to be the champion of the downtrodden saying he is quite happy to accept a ridiculous payment that no other Australian gets if they lose their job—and a lot of Australians lost jobs, I have to say, when the ALP was last in government. He is quite happy to take this payment. It demonstrates a great degree of hypocrisy, I am afraid to say, by the member for Lilley, particularly when he is in this debate today trying to prove the credibility of the alternative government when it comes to addressing the issue of poverty.

In the statements made by the Leader of the Opposition and the ALP shadow spokesperson, they highlighted a number of indicators and benchmarks that they want to articulate. It is interesting, because the last benchmark or major statement that was made in this country—and I remember it well; it was back in 1990 and it was made by then Prime Minister Bob Hawke—was that no child shall live in poverty. He was masquerading himself as saving the downtrodden. What an absolute joke! During that period, from 1990 through to 1996, more Australians lost their jobs than we have ever seen before in the history of this country. We inherited the `recession that we had to have'. Here was the then Prime Minister, the most successful ALP leader from the right wing—which, I must say, is certainly better than the left wing—pronouncing and setting this target that no child would live in poverty. Of course, it was an absolute failure.

Indeed, what we saw was that more families were put into perilous situations by the `recession that we had to have' which followed in the time of Bob Hawke's successor, Paul Keating. During that period we saw an enormous acceleration in debt. Some may say, `That doesn't bother us.' But it does—we were $80 billion in debt, which then went to $96 billion. The consequences of that and the impact it had on Australian families were profound. They lost their jobs and many of them lost their homes through very high mortgage repayments. We also saw real reductions in salaries.

The member for Lilley spends a lot of time talking about the broadening inequality between those who are very wealthy and those who are in the lower quartile. There are concerns there. No-one disputes that. But the fact is that more people were out of work—and it was a diabolical situation—when the ALP last occupied the treasury bench. It is interesting when we talk about that debt situation, because what we are talking about here is the credibility of the ALP. During that time of huge interest rate explosion and acceleration of debt, the interest repayments alone would have paid for the total health and education budget in the last year of Labor in 1996. So to say that no child shall live in poverty or to make the statements that have been made today is absolutely ridiculous.

The other interesting point in the statement by the Leader of the Opposition that was not talked about by the member for Lilley—and I think he was probably wise not to—was that the Labor Party is going to have another summit to solve the problems of inequality in Australia. I tell you what: the ALP is very good at summits. Bob Carr is the classic—he is the summit king. We have had summits on alcohol, obesity, drugs and salinity, and the list goes on. There are more summits being proposed by the Labor Party than there are in the Himalayas. Having a commitment to providing poverty reduction targets might sound good in theory, but in the practice of the previous ALP government it was appalling.

I think it is important in this debate to look at some of the leading indicators to try and highlight some of the double standards of the ALP. We can look at what the coalition government has done since it came to office in 1996 about increasing wealth and opportunities for all Australians and, indeed, about raising the level of the tide for all boats, particularly as the tide relates to those in the lower quartile or those in middle-income Australia. The greatest thing you can do to overcome poverty—and this point was made by a number of ministers in the government today—is to provide employment opportunities. It is employment, that self-empower-ment to get out of poverty, that will assist more Australian families than any type of indirect or direct government intervention. Of course, that comes through good economic management.

As the Prime Minister said—and the member for Lilley was making fun of this—the reality is that we certainly do have a real trifecta here. The unemployment rate is now below six per cent—it is at 5.8 per cent. Inflation is under three per cent. We have an official interest rate below five per cent. The last time that happened was in 1968. When we compare that to the ALP record at the time it last left government, we see that unemployment peaked at 10.9 per cent. The ALP asks questions about the affordability of housing. When you have a mortgage repayment rate which peaked at 20.5 per cent, no wonder more people were driven to poverty. No wonder having such a basic thing in your life as a roof over your head was denied to so many people—it was totally unaffordable. The interest rate was 20.5 per cent in 1990 when the ALP was last in government.

Interestingly, if you look at households now, they have $6 in assets for every $1 in debt. The reality is that the wealth of Australia is increasing. Even those in the lower quartile have had a great increase in minimum wages and real growth rates compared to the significant reductions in growth rates that we saw from 1990 through to 1996. It is hypocritical for the ALP, which is meant to be representing the working class and working people, to say that real wages went up under its stewardship or that they are likely to go up if ever—God forbid!—it gets control of the treasury bench here in this place.

The reality is that, in order to alleviate poverty, employment is particularly important. Since we came into government, 1.2 million jobs have been created. Even in the area of teenage unemployment—and this is particularly poignant for many of those like me in coastal seats that have a high young population and a high elderly population—the rate of teenage unemployment is now one in 25 teenagers compared to one in 10 as was the case when the ALP was last in government in 1996. Do not ask me—I may have a particularly biased view—but the world economic outlook of the IMF predicted that Australia would continue to have the fastest growing economy in the world, providing opportunities for all Australians irrespective of where they live. These are opportunities. This is about creating jobs, not creating unemployment, which the ALP does consistently.

The member for Lilley talked about educational opportunities. Interestingly, when we look at vocational education and training today, more and more young Australians and people from disadvantaged backgrounds now have access particularly to apprenticeships and traineeships. There were 141,000 when Labor was last in government—we are talking about a figure that is three times that now. This is very important, particularly for a lot of those younger Australians who may not want to go on to higher education. It is also important particularly within our schools in that we are finding that it is ensuring that we raise the literacy and numeracy standards, because education is really the passport for many disadvantaged families—regardless of their circumstances—to get them out of those situations. We are providing increased funding particularly for education, but most particularly for improving the literacy and numeracy standards, which is fundamentally important.

As was mentioned many times by the minister for education, we are planning $1.5 billion of funding for higher education and scholarships, particularly for a lot of Australians who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. In the area of youth allowance we are again providing that passport for young Australians: 380,000 of our young Australians are receiving substantially more than under the old Austudy where it was easier to get the dole than to go on to further higher education. This is again because of direct policy initiatives of the Howard-Anderson government—and, of course, of Tim Fischer, who was here a few years prior to Mr Anderson—ensuring that all Australians get the best possible start, particularly when it comes to education. I must admit that I was surprised that there were criticisms of the GST. We certainly did not introduce it to be popular, but I must say that none of the states has complained. What we would like to see is that all the GST revenue that goes to the states is actually spent on their core portfolio responsibilities of health, education and, in particular, roads and infrastructure.

Mr Anthony Smith —They support it now.

Mr ANTHONY —Yes. As was acknowledged, they are very enthusiastic about it. We notice that the roll-back has of course been dropped by the federal opposition. The member for Lilley talks about the supposed inequality in private health insurance. Even when Graham Richardson was here—the master of the Australian Labor Party, who is obviously quite happy working for PBL these days—it was red alert time when private health insurance dropped below 40 per cent. Even he knew then that it was terribly important to support private health insurance to provide a range of options for Australians whether they are rich or poor and particularly to support the public hospital system along with the private sector by having adequate private health insurance.

Labor have continued not to endorse the government's policy on the 30 per cent rebate. They have not said it once, because they are quite committed to destroying it. Even today in question time it was demonstrated time after time that in the different seats represented by ALP members in the lower house either 40 per cent or 50 per cent of those constituents have private health insurance. Not only have we dramatically increased the funding—17 per cent, which is $42 billion, a doubling of what it was in the last couple of years of Labor—for public hospitals in the last agreements with the state governments; we have of course done the same for the private sector. We are unashamed about that, because when it comes to providing health, providing choice and providing equity it is the coalition government that does so, again by supporting Medicare rather than using the constant scare tactics of the member for Lilley and others.

Interestingly, although they talk about poverty or the health and wellbeing of Australians, Labor did not do a very good job when it came to immunisation rates. When it came to our kids, our kids' health and their future, immunisation rates were at the lowest rate for decades when Labor last left government. They have been increased dramatically by us. We have increased private health funding dramatically, along with funding to general public hospitals.

One of the interesting areas is the debate on housing. Through every conference that I go to and every visit I make to a charitable organisation, it is made clear to me that the primary responsibility for any one of us parliamentarians—whether we hold a coastal seat or one in an urban area—is to make sure that we provide adequate housing for Australians. The notion that somehow Australians will be better off with the ALP being on the Treasury bench is ridiculous when we know their economic management policies are poor and we know that interest rates will start to skyrocket. How can you possibly afford to have a roof over your head when you have to pay interest rates of 17 per cent? Today they are 6.55 per cent. The PM mentioned today that mortgage payments today are $400 less per month. Can you imagine: if you were on a 30 or 50 per cent tax rate, you would have to be earning $1,000 more per month to pay that. Through our first home buyers scheme, 482,000 new home buyers have been able to buy a house.

Look at aged care. Look at child care. The coalition government have increased all of these areas substantially. Even on the issue of family tax benefit, we redesigned the system by changing 12 payments into three. We increased payments by $2 billion. We have $11 billion going out the door now. When you put in child-care benefits, this is a great success story of overcoming poverty in Australia. (Time expired)