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Monday, 23 May 2011
Page: 4026

Mr MELHAM (Banks) (13:16): This is the 22nd budget that has been delivered since I entered the parliament in March 1990, and I think it is the same for the previous speaker, Mr Truss. We have seen a lot of budgets in our time and, quite frankly, you can summarise the budget recently delivered by the Treasurer in the following terms, 'It is a budget for the times.' Shortly after this government was elected in 2007, it was confronted with the global financial crisis, a worldwide economic crisis about which the figures are now just in. We were told that if we did nothing there would be an extra 200,000 on the unemployment queues. The government did something. The Labor government engaged in a stimulus package that involved social housing, money for pensioners and money for schools.

When Labor took office in November 2007 there were 10.7 million employed persons in Australia. In April 2011 there were 11.4 million employed persons in Australia. That equates to 734,000 new jobs since Labor came to government. That is a proud record for the Labor Party. That is not something that just happened and that would not have happened if we had behaved like a moo cow, watching passing traffic and doing nothing. The government was activist. The Labor Party have always held at its core the importance of jobs. Without a job, you cannot pay your mortgage and you cannot protect your family. Underpinning this particular budget is that the rate of unemployment is forecast to fall to 4½ per cent by mid-2013, which will create another half a million jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs: that is the hallmark of this government.

In the Treasurer's budget speech, he pointed out that in the past year we have created over 300,000 jobs. If one looks around the world, one will see that, while employment in Australia has grown by almost seven per cent since the end of 2007 and 5.3 per cent since the middle of 2008, across the OECD employment has fallen by 1.4 per cent and 1.8 per cent respectively. Employment fell by 14 per cent in Ireland, which has been affected the most by the global financial crisis. Every G7 country has experienced either a fall in employment or negligible jobs growth since the end of 2007 and the middle of 2008, but not Australia. That is because the government has acted appropriately. It has not taken the approach of slashing and burning that the opposition would have—or done nothing, another alternative from the opposition. The opposition have said they would not have done what the government has done since 2007. We now have a period in which to compare our record with the global record, and we stand up as the envy of the rest of the world in relation to our employment situation.

One of the reasons that the public might not have necessarily appreciated what has happened is that there have not been the dole queues that we have been used to in the past—when either side were in government—and a shortening of those queues. What has happened is that jobs have been protected and jobs have been created. I remember going to the opening of some social housing in Hurstville and an employee of the company that had built those houses saying, 'Without the government's involvement in the social housing program, we would have lost our jobs.' You need growth in the economy to create employment. You need the multiplier effect. For every dollar that is put into the economy there is $4 that is washed around the economy, and that goes towards employment. I think the government's priorities are right. These are not easy times. These are difficult times.

We have committed to being back in the black in two years time. No-one has managed to punch a hole in that argument. There has been a bit of rhetoric, but we have not seen a credible economist saying that the budget figures are bodgie or dodgy. It has now been some time since the budget was delivered. The only people who will be unhappy if the budget goes into the black in a couple of years time are the members of the opposition. They are big on rhetoric, but no alternative budget strategy was presented by the Leader of the Opposition on the Thursday night after the budget. They produce a lot of rhetoric but no alternative programs. 'Yes, we'd cut, too,' they say, but they will not tell us where they are going to cut.

As I said, this is, in the main, a budget for the times because, for me, a Labor representative in this place, the most important thing is employment in the community—lowering the unemployment rate, getting it down to 4.5 per cent. I know there is a suggestion that interest rates may go up in the next 12 months. Well, whoop-de-do! Interest rates go up and down, but I am not a slave to interest rates. I do not apologise; I am a slave to a reduction in unemployment because I have seen the devastation in my community, in Bankstown and Hurstville. I can remember 1996, when the former Keating government was defeated and the subsequent conservative budget came down and slashed and burned. In the space of a couple of years, from 1996 to 1998, youth unemployment in the Canterbury-Bankstown region went from 17½ per cent to 34½ per cent as SkillShare programs were closed down and slashing and burning occurred. I believe there needs to be restraint; I am not arguing against restraint. But we need to do it in an appropriate manner.

I do not apologise for regional Australia getting extra money, because there are extra costs involved in living in regional Australia. I have no problem with creating infrastructure for regional Australia—Queensland and Western Australia—because, without that assistance, those communities would not be able to survive. I believe—and I have said it before in relation to Indigenous Australians—true equality requires differential treatment to bring us up to the same level. That is why I do not have a problem with regional states such as Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland getting a little extra funding in percentage terms compared to New South Wales and Victoria. In some respects it is easier to produce infrastructure programs in Victoria and New South Wales—although, as has been documented, New South Wales has not had a good record in recent times.

At the federal level, continuing to create employment opportunities requires cooperation with our state colleagues because a lot of the efficiency and a lot of the productivity is going to come out of the states. Instead of Sydney commuters being stuck in 'parking lots' on the way to work, the infrastructure there needs to be looked at. You need to have those roads flowing. You need properly funded public transport. When I was the opposition spokesman on housing and urban development and local government, I was amazed by the number of people who were actually employed within a small distance of their home. These are the issues for Greater Western Sydney on which it is important for us to work with the state government. That government is now of a different political persuasion, but the principles are the same irrespective of the politics of the particular government—to make sure that the people of Western Sydney are not neglected. We need to ensure that because that is where the growth is, in that south-western corridor—future housing development at Bringelly and business development on the old Badgerys Creek site. Our budget is an important budget for driving the economy and no-one has yet come up with any credible debunking of the projections of 500,000 jobs in the next two years and of a reduction to 4.5 per cent unemployment.

The one area of the budget about which I do have reservations relates to the efficiency dividend, which was first introduced in 1986-87. If my mathematics are right, this is its 25th year in operation. The efficiency dividend is designed to get blood out of a rock in relation to the public service. My particular concern arises out of the fact that for the last three years—I was elected on 13 May 2008—I have served this House as a representative on the National Library of Australia Council. That three-year term ended on 12 May. I did not seek to do another term and I note, Mr Deputy Speaker Adams, that you will be representing the House on the National Library of Australia Council.

In the three years that I was a representative, I did not miss a meeting. I had access to a lot of information and I was able to observe the staff and members of the council. This nation is well served by those on the council and by the staff of the National Library of Australia. I think that is true of the National Archives of Australia, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian War Memorial—all those places that are national institutions, that are cultural institutions. I believe that it is not necessarily appropriate for the efficiency dividend to operate on those cultural institutions the way it operates on other public service bodies. I believe the government should have a look at the overall operation of the efficiency dividend in relation to cultural institutions, because I think increasing the efficiency dividend from 1.25 per cent to 1.5 per cent will do great damage to those cultural institutions.

This is the first time in 22 years that I have spoken against an effective Labor measure and I have done it as the parliament's representative, and due to the experience I have gained on behalf of the parliament, on the National Library of Australia Council. I believe there has to be another way of extracting those savings, whether they can be obtained from elsewhere in the particular portfolio or whether the government of the day can assist those institutions by quarantining certain aspects of their operations from the efficiency dividend. I think this is a matter that transcends party politics. I do not believe it is something that is being done deliberately, but this is one of those instances where, in my humble opinion, one size does not fit all. That is why, in my view, the operation of the efficiency dividend needs to be looked at in relation to these cultural institutions. There is much being done by all those cultural institutions in terms of the preservation and retaining of our history and our heritage. I know that the National Library is going through a digitisation program. It should not be in a situation where there is some evidence before the Senate estimates committee, which I do not want to fully go into—that was on Monday, 21 February 2011—where there were some details about the effect of the efficiency dividend. Those institutions should be handled in a sensitive way and given a level of flexibility and assistance from the government. You see, we can find money. I know the War Memorial engaged in a wonderful political campaign and got a lot more money than they expected but that is not the conduct the National Library, the Archives or the Museum should have to engage in to, in effect, protect their institutions. The War Memorial did all right. The government was never going to win that debate. I would urge my approach on the government and I know it would have the support of the other side. Senator Trood, who finishes up in June, has been an excellent representative on the council and we worked together without playing politics in this regard. I commend my comments to the government in relation to the efficiency dividend. (Time expired)