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Monday, 6 May 1996
Page: 330

Mr NUGENT(1.29 p.m.) —Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl, may I start by offering my congratulations to you on your appointment, to the Speaker on his appointment and to the Second Deputy Speaker on his appointment. Before I start my remarks, could I also say a couple of things to the previous speaker, the member for Cunningham (Mr Martin), who was the occupant of the Speaker's chair in the last parliament. Whilst he sometimes operated under some considerable restraints imposed by a person who is no longer a member of this chamber, I have to acknowledge that many of the things that he did in that role were very worth while, and I would like to publicly put that on record.

I would like to challenge him a little on some of the comments he made about a former member for Canberra, which electorate I understand enjoys the best sporting facilities of the nation. It seems to me that, when you look at the previous government's record of providing facilities, former members of that government can indeed read out a long list of wonderful achievements and resources for their individual electorates, as did Ros Kelly and as did the member for Cunningham—and there are many more.

If you actually look at where most of the money went to, you see it went very heavily to particular government members or to the government side generally and very few members from this side of the chamber had electorates that benefited. So my electorate is looking forward to seeing some redressing of that balance. It is not a question that now this side will only look after its own. We will do what we said in the election we would do, and that is to govern for all Australians. That was something which the previous government very much lost sight of and it is one of the key reasons why the previous government lost so heavily on 2 March.

I would like to address a number of points today, although I suspect I am going to run out of time because of the 1.45 p.m. rule. First of all, I would like to talk about the standing of the parliament and of members of parliament. I would like to talk about the significance for my electorate of Aston in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne of the government's proposed program. I want to say a couple of words about indigenous reconciliation and I want to talk about Australia's overseas aid program. If I have time, I will mention something about the republic and gun control.

Before I go into that most important subject of the standards of parliament, I would also like to add my support to the other members in this place who have, over the last few days, expressed their condolences to all those who lost family, friends and loved ones in the terrible tragedy at Port Arthur.

The reason I want to talk first today about the standing of parliament is that it seems to me that from that all else must spring. If we do not have a parliament and members of parliament in this country who have some respect and standing amongst the community out there, then, frankly, it seems to me our very democracy is in peril. I think it has been noticeable to all of us in this place, as well as to many outside, that the standing of parliament and parliamentarians has become something of a dirty word. It is particularly noticeable when you go to schools. When you read the media and when you talk to anybody, they do not talk about parliamentarians; they talk about politicians. `Politicians' means something which is not very savoury at all. I think that is pretty sad.

Like so many members in this place, when I came here six years ago I gave up a very successful and well-paying career. I halved my salary to come in here, as have many members. I came here because I wanted to contribute to my country and to help make my country a better place for my children and for subsequent generations. What is particularly disappointing in this respect is the performance of the press gallery. It seems to me that the press gallery knows damn well that most members work very hard and that there is a lot of bipartisan, constructive and positive work that goes on in this place. Yet it is never reported. All we get is the 30-second grab on television news at 6 o'clock at night and we see the bits of robust debate that have gone on. I am not saying that that robust debate does not sometimes go over the top or that it is defensible. What I am saying is that much of what is reported is, in fact, a small fraction of what goes on here.

As the previous speaker will acknowledge, in his capacity as Speaker of this House in the last parliament he appointed a cross-party committee—which I happened to chair—which was made up of a majority of members who were not government members and which looked at things like the amalgamation of the Department of the Parliamentary Library and the Department of the Parliamentary Reporting Staff with the aim of improving the efficiency of this place. There are many committees where both sides sit down and agree on the recommendations that come out and support the legislation that flows.

As a private member, you often go to members of the government, if they are of a different party, with particular issues for your constituency and you get support and help to resolve those problems for Australians. None of that comes out in the media. None of that comes out in the community. People do not understand. It seems to me that the press gallery has a lot to answer for in that respect.

Therefore, I want to say up-front that I think the intention of the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to try to restore this chamber to primacy in this nation is an outstanding first move. His attendance at question time every day is critical because he sets the example. The new standards of conduct are critical. The fact that major announcements will be made in this chamber is absolutely vital. One of my criticisms of the previous Prime Minister is that too often the major statements were made down at the National Press Club or somewhere else. I, as a member of this chamber—and I know the then government members were in the same boat—would often find out about major announcements of policy when the journos rang up and said, `The Prime Minister has just said this, what do you think about it?' That is not good enough.

If our democracy is to survive, this is the place where we have to talk about those things. This is the place where the major announcements have to be made. Similarly, it is absolutely critical, if we are to restore some faith in the system and encourage people of ability and goodwill to come into this place in the future, that we honour our promises.

This parliament does have to reassert its supremacy. This parliament must take on the executive from time to time. I have been delighted, listening to a number of the maiden speeches in this chamber, not only to hear the quality of the speeches but also to hear what they have featured. It is interesting to note—and the new members will not be aware of this—that in the last parliament so often the then government criticised our side of politics for having no social concerns. They said that we did not care about people, that we were all dry, rational economists and so on, which of course was not true.

It has been a feature of a number of the maiden speeches that have been made in the last few days in this place that a number of our new members have a strong social awareness and are quite clearly prepared to stand up and say so in their first speeches. That is commendable. I look forward to this parliament not only because the view from this side is a jolly sight better than the view from the other side, and it is nice to win a vote in here from time to time, but also because we will have a parliament that is about the core of our country's democracy, and that is fundamental.

My electorate of Aston is in the outer eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It is a rapidly growing electorate with an overwhelming number of young people. There is much higher unemployment than when the previous government came to power. There are a lot of young families but there will be an increasing aged component in the next 10 years. There are thousands of small businesses and great problems with transport, roads and interest rates. There is also an increasing ethnic component. There are more mortgage payers in my electorate than any electorate in the country, so to say that it is sensitive to interest rates would be the understatement of the year.

The program the government has laid out has started to address many of the issues that are so relevant to my constituents. For example, if you look at the increasing aged population, yes, we have nursing homes and yes, we have hostels. But we do not deal adequately with those who are moving into the dementia category. It is a special need that is not a nursing home category and, equally, is not a hostel category. The government's announcement that it will address that particular section is of fundamental importance.

I have 7,900 small businesses in my electorate, many of them high-tech businesses, many of them exporters. I want this government to look very hard at any plans it has in terms of some of the schemes used to encourage small business to go into overseas markets. I would also encourage it not only to bring interest rates down but to look very carefully at the exchange rate mechanism as well. We do need transport, roads and infrastructure in the outer suburban areas of places like Melbourne, and I am very keen to see the government look at those as well.

Our multicultural policy will be very important. Nearly 16 per cent of my electorate is from a different background, and many are recently from Asia. They are mostly successful people who do not vote as a block but come here with a new perspective that this country needs to take on board because they are contributing mightily to their new land.

Before I run out of time I want to mention very briefly the subject of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reconciliation. Those who have been in this chamber for some time will know that I have been a strong advocate of indigenous reconciliation for a number of years. For the last four-odd years I have been the then opposition representative on the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. I have now been appointed as the government's representative on that same council.

We are to mark National Reconciliation Week in the week commencing 27 May. There is to be a large luncheon co-hosted by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition (Mr Beazley) and the Leader of the Australian Democrats (Senator Kernot), and all members will be getting an invitation. I would urge all members to support that activity and the other associated activities. There will be a 1997 convention on Aboriginal reconciliation, which I urge all members to take an interest in.

We all agree that the issues of health, housing, education and employment in our indigenous community, which by any yardstick is the most disadvantaged in our country, are matters that have to be addressed. The fact that there have been failures in the ways in which we have addressed those issues is no excuse for saying we cannot address them. We have to find better and more effective ways of addressing those issues but we also have to acknowledge the importance of land. We have to recognise the significance of issues such as Mabo. We have to understand the cultural differences. We, the majority, the non-Aboriginal people in this country, have to accept the responsibility for what has gone on in this country in the past in terms of the treatment of the indigenous people.

Things like regional agreements, such as those which have been pioneered in Cape York and to my horror have been set aside by the Premier, Mr Borbidge, can resolve a lot of the problems in this country. Self-determination is an issue which is very near and dear to indigenous hearts. We cannot just say we do not like it and sweep it under the carpet. We have to deal with those issues. Mr Speaker, I could go on for a long time on this issue, and I flag it as one, amongst many others, that I will be pursuing in this parliament.

Given that I have only two or three minutes before we adjourn this debate to go on to other business, I want to talk a little bit about foreign aid. There was a letter in the Financial Review on 25 April this year signed by the heads of a number of major aid organisations—Austcare, ACFOA, the Australian Catholic Relief Organisation, Community Aid Abroad, the Overseas Service Bureau, Plan International, the Save the Children Fund and World Vision Australia.

I am delighted to see that we now have the Speaker here. Earlier on, Mr Speaker, I offered you my congratulations on your appointment. I am pleased now to be able to do it personally.

Mr SPEAKER —Thank you very much.

Mr NUGENT —In that letter on foreign aid, the heads of these organisations made the points: by any yardstick, this country is still very affluent; and while we have to look after the poor and needy in our community, equally, as an affluent, developed country we have international responsibilities. The proposition to cut our overseas aid further than we have done previously or than we said we would in our election proposal is unacceptable.

Overseas aid has been running at about 3.3 per cent of GDP. Our aim was to cut that by 0.7 per cent. We are now proposing to cut it further. I urge the Prime Minister, the cabinet and the razor gang—or whatever you want to call it—to look at this area and say, `Enough is enough. We have cut enough.' I think we should have much greater commitment to overseas aid because, particularly in our part of the world, we have a responsibility to help so many disadvantaged people. To ease your load, Mr Speaker, which is to chop me off at the knees, since it is 1.45, if you would like me to, I will sit down.

Mr SPEAKER —Your timing is impeccable. Order! It being 1.45 p.m., the debate is interrupted in accordance with the resolution of 1 May 1996. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for a later hour this day. The honourable member for Aston will be continuing his statement.