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Wednesday, 9 May 2007
Page: 151

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (7:35 PM) —Yesterday Australia’s longest-serving Treasurer, the Hon. Peter Costello, delivered another impressive budget. Responsible and disciplined economic management has enabled the Howard government to deliver its 10th budget surplus. As the Treasurer delivered his 12th budget last night, the message was clear: the budget is focused on ensuring that we lock in the progress this government has made in the past 10 years and that we are prepared for future challenges.

In 1996, the Howard government inherited a net debt of $96 billion. It has only been through the responsible management of the Howard government that we have eliminated this debt. This is a fantastic achievement in itself; however, while simultaneously paying off Labor’s enormous debt, the Howard government’s economic management has seen real wages increase by around 20 per cent since 1996.

The budget has been designed at a time of great economic prosperity, and it has been designed to do two important things—on the one hand, to return to present-day Australians, the current generation, some human dividend from the great prosperity that we are now enjoying. That has come about through tax cuts, pensioner bonuses and other benefits, and increases in child care which will flow immediately on to Australians across the wide spectrum of our daily lives. But, on the other hand, it is a budget that was designed to look to the future, to ensure that some of today’s wealth is preserved for the future. A few years ago, we set up the Future Fund, and now, with the same objective of putting something aside for the future, we have set up the Higher Education Endowment Fund.

As I said, it is responsible and disciplined economic management which has enabled the coalition government to deliver its 10th budget surplus. In net terms, Australia remains debt free. We have an underlying cash surplus of $10.6 billion. Ten years ago, as I mentioned, we owed $96 billion. We were paying an interest bill of $8.5 billion a year, money that was being wasted. Having eliminated this net debt in 2005-06, we no longer have to pay such net interest payments, meaning that we can invest in better services to benefit all Australians.

This year’s budget is framed to lock in the progress that we have made over the past 10 years, keeping people in jobs and improving living standards so that all Australians can plan for the future with confidence. The budget surplus will allow Australia to prepare for its future challenges by investing in the future. These challenges include an ageing population, increased demand on the healthcare and aged-care systems, climate change, regional instability and other global shocks which may threaten our economy. The Future Fund remains a government priority and a crucial part of locking in future prosperity. Since March 1996, I repeat, real wages have increased by around 20 per cent. At the same time, Australians are enjoying low and stable inflation rates—averaging around 2.5 per cent—which have in turn allowed interest rates to remain low by historical standards.

I would like to take this opportunity to briefly draw attention to some specific aspects of this budget that will benefit my constituents of New South Wales and, in particular, highlight a few that will especially benefit regional areas. One of these is the very successful AusLink program. The Howard government has in this budget reaffirmed its commitment to regional Australia by announcing additional funding for the highly successful AusLink program. The Australian government will invest $22.3 billion in Australia’s land transport system as part of AusLink 2. This amounts to the greatest investment in land transport infrastructure ever made by an Australian government. Under the existing AusLink program, the government will contribute an additional $2.8 billion of funding in 2007-08, and this includes an additional $781.1 million for works on highways in New South Wales. Under the AusLink Strategic Regional Program, the Howard government is already contributing $78.8 million to projects in New South Wales. Part of this program, I am pleased to say, includes $30 million for key projects on the Princess Highway south of Wollongong. Another very successful program is Regional Partnerships.

Senator Nash —Hear, hear!

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS —Cer-tainly, Senator Nash, very successful indeed. Over the last two years, I have had the opportunity to represent the Deputy Prime Minister at various openings of Regional Partnerships projects that were made possible through the assistance of the federal government. I am very pleased to say that in the Illawarra we have had quite a number of very successful Regional Partnerships projects.

For example, in January this year I announced funding of $1.3 million for the Southern Gateway Centre at Bulli Tops in Wollongong. This project will establish a landmark, state-of-the-art visitors centre which will include a restaurant and an Aboriginal interpretative centre. I think it will be a very important gateway to the Illawarra. This project will bring significant benefits to the Illawarra and deliver benefits to communities well into the future, not only from program funding but also from the high levels of economic activity and improved social amenity which the centre will generate. This is just one example of the many sorts of projects that have been made possible through the Regional Partnerships program. This is why the government has committed an additional $105.2 million in the 2007-08 budget for this successful and important program.

I would now like to focus on the absolutely fantastic announcements that have been made in relation to tertiary education. As Senator Brandis told us earlier, in question time today, the government’s commitment to higher education through the Higher Education Endowment Fund’s $5 billion has been well received by universities. Professor Gerard Sutton, President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, said on the AM program this morning:

The university sector is thrilled with the budget, because it met each of the three requests that we made—student support, dollars per student and the establishment of that endowment fund ensures that the capital works of universities is taken care of forever.

Professor Sutton has reason indeed to be pleased with this budget.

Another great initiative that I know will very much benefit the Illawarra is the Rural Clinical Schools Program, which is helping us meet the challenges in recruiting health professionals to rural areas. An example of this is the announcement that the University of Wollongong will receive $16.3 million over four years. This will be used to establish a rural clinical school which will allow 60 medical students each year to undertake long-term rural clinical placements in regional areas of New South Wales. These are just some examples of how we are helping regional and rural areas.

I would like to mention briefly in closing that this budget contains wonderful initiatives to support Australian families: a further $2 billion in additional support will provide families with increased and timely childcare assistance; childcare benefit will be increased; families will receive the childcare tax rebate as a direct payment shortly after the year they incur the cost; more health care funding which will provide $124 million over four years for the Active After-school Communities program; our initiatives in relation to dental health; and other initiatives which will help combat use of illegal drugs in order to protect our children from drugs like ice. As I said in opening, responsible and disciplined economic management has enabled the coalition government to deliver another successful budget which will lock in the gains that we have made and prepare for our future. (Time expired)