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Wednesday, 23 May 2018
Page: 4480

Mr CONROY (Shortland) (16:06): I rise to talk about the appropriation bills, which are the budget bills for the government. This affords me a good opportunity to talk about the priorities for my electorate and my region of Lake Macquarie and northern Central Coast. I'd like to start my contribution today by reflecting on a picture of what my electorate is like. When you look at the budget and everything that's in it, its priorities, you'd assume that the typical worker in Australia earns $100,000, or $200,000 as the case may be, and that families earn much more than that. That's where the tax cuts are targeted, and that's where those opposite seem to think people are residing in terms of affordability.

The true picture is very different for my electorate. The true picture for my electorate is that the median worker—so if you lined up every single worker in my electorate end-to-end and picked the 50th percentile, the person in the middle—earns $47,300. Half of all my workers earn less than $47,300; half of all my workers earn more. The median household income in my electorate, including retired households, is $65,000—that is, they live on $65,000 a year. A very high number of pensioners, about 22,000, reside in Shortland—it's a fabulous place to retire to—and the average retiree household survives on $32,000 a year. That's for a couple; that's not for an individual. The median retiree household in Shortland lives on $32,000 a year. The median household assets for retired couples is $650,000. This includes the family home and all their assets, including car, couch, furniture, clothing and everything else. And the median super balance for retired households in my electorate is $165,000. It's very important to put these facts on the record, because this goes to who the people of Shortland are and what their priorities are, and it is my job to reflect and to deliver on their priorities.

I regret to say that one in five children in my electorate will go to school at least once a year without a meal, without having breakfast—not because they didn't want Corn Flakes or Weet-Bix, but because their family could not afford to have food in the fridge for breakfast. This is a sad indictment on our society, and it's an indictment that, along with every other member of the Labor team, I am intent on rectifying. That's the true picture of the people of Shortland.

I want to now go to some of their priorities. The No. 1 priority for the people of Shortland is affordable health care: being able to see a doctor when you're sick; being able to get into the hospital when, heaven forbid, something's happened to your child or your grandparent or your mother or your father. I'm sad to say that this government's budget bills contain $715 million of cuts to hospitals around the country, including $37 million of cuts to hospitals in my region. That is already having an impact. For example, waitlists are increasing and only 66 per cent of urgent emergency department patients are seen within the recommended 30 minutes. These cuts are having an impact, and it's something we need to rectify.

That's why I'm so proud that the Labor opposition, in our budget-in-reply speech by Bill Shorten, announced $2.8 billion of additional funding for public hospitals and $80 million for 20 new MRI machines in regional hospitals and outer suburban hospitals. This is so important. At a budget forum I held last week, I had a constituent who said that their partner had gone to a private hospital and they'd been required to get an MRI. Not only was that MRI not Medicare rebatable but they didn't have a licence so they couldn't even claim the cost of the MRI off their private healthcare insurance. This is unacceptable, and we need to do much more about that.

We also need to restore needed funding for Medicare. Under this government, Medicare has been cut and cut. The Prime Minister has broken his promise to unfreeze the rebate for specialists, despite making a cast-iron promise to do so. Out-of-pocket fees to see specialists have gone even higher. They've increased to $88, an increase of $12 since the election, and that will only go higher since the rebate has been frozen. If you freeze that pay specialists get from Medicare, they will charge their patients more. We've also seen the out-of-pocket costs for visiting a GP increase by $4 since the election as well. If this government was serious about health care, they would restore the vital funding needed to public hospitals, they would match our commitments around MRIs and they would ensure Medicare is adequately funded.

I will turn to the other great priority for my electorate, and that's education. This budget confirms the $17 billion in cuts to school education through the needs-based funding model. This is $17 billion in cuts against what the government committed to in the 2013 election. They proudly bragged about the cuts in the infamous 2014 budget, where their glossy document bragged about $80 billion of cuts to schools and hospitals. Their exact words were $80 billion of cuts—not reductions or increases, but cuts. That is having an impact. My schools are some of the poorest schools in the country. They made great use of the early years of the needs-based funding. One great example is St Pius X Primary School in Windale. I'm grateful to my colleague, the member for Lyne, in correcting me yesterday.

Dr Gillespie: No fibs!

Mr CONROY: I referred to a St Pius XI yesterday. I got carried away with my popes. It is, in fact, St Pius X Primary School in Windale. I want to congratulate St Pius X Primary School on their absolutely fantastic NAPLAN results. In the category of schools they are in, because they're one of the lowest socioeconomic schools in the country, their year 3 students came first in the whole of Australia in reading, grammar, punctuation and mathematics and second in writing and spelling. Year 5 also excelled, again coming first nationally in writing, spelling and mathematics. They were second in reading and third in grammar and punctuation. I cannot emphasise to the House how truly remarkable these results are.

St Pius X is a very special school. The school and the community face some very severe socioeconomic challenges. It's a small school of 50 students, and 57 per cent of students are Indigenous. Because of the early years of the needs-based funding, the Catholic Schools Office was able to allocate very significant additional resources and they employed two extra teachers in a school of 50. Two extra teachers in a small school of 50 is such an amazing investment, and that is having a positive payoff right now. I'm sure we can all appreciate the dramatically positive impact these additional staff are having in that school and the life-changing impact on these children. As I said, they are excelling. They are first in the nation in reading, grammar, punctuation and mathematics and second in writing and spelling.

I spoke to one of their teachers at an Anzac Day ceremony, who was brought on using the early years needs-based funding. She was adamant, as is the school leadership, that those results would not have been achieved, and that improvement would not have been achieved without those early years of the needs-based funding. Congratulations to the principal, Peter Brown; his staff; the community of St Pius X and most importantly the gifted and special students at that school. That's not the only success story out of needs-based funding. Lake Munmorah Public School have used the early years of the funding to specialise in teacher development and really invest in teacher development for their class teachers. I was talking to the principal of Swansea High School only last week, and she was saying that they allocate a lot of the money to additional tutoring for kids who are probably entering years 7 and 8 with the least developed literacy and numeracy skills. They know that, unless they get those kids back on track, they will fall even further behind on the path to year 12.

That is the power of education. That is the power of true needs based schools funding in this country. That is the opportunity that is being squandered by this government's $17 billion of cuts to needs based school funding. That is why I'm so proud that Bill Shorten in the budget reply reaffirmed Labor's commitment to restoring that $17 billion of funding. That means an extra $33 million of funding to schools in Shortland in the next two years alone. Let me repeat that: a Labor government means that in the next two years schools in the Shortland, Central Coast and Lake Macquarie area will get an extra $33 million of funding to boost educational opportunities. In December last year the government announced $2.2 billion of cuts to university education, ending the demand-driven approach to higher education. That means 200,000 fewer students will go to uni than otherwise could. Again, I'm proud that Labor has committed to restoring that $2.2 billion of funding.

The budget also contained $270 million in cuts to TAFE. This is a dramatic cut on top of the $1.5 billion this government has already cut out of TAFE. The Hunter region is dominated by mining and manufacturing. We are particularly dependent on tradespeople and their skills. Any cuts to TAFE hit my region disproportionately. That's why this $270 million cut to TAFE was so short-sighted. When I did my budget fora last week, it was the cut that received the most vociferous opposition from the audience, even though it wasn't as big as some of the others. That's why I'm proud that Labor's budget response committed $473 million of additional funding to TAFE, including $100 million to upgrade TAFE facilities. Some TAFE workshops are very old. I've said to some tradespeople in their 40s and 50s that they probably haven't changed much compared to when they went through TAFE, so $100 million to upgrade those workshops is great. Spending money to provide 100,000 scholarships means there are no up-front fees for students studying in areas of critical skills shortage such as carpentry. That's so important if we're to turn away from filling those vacancies through temporary skilled migration programs and employ Australians in those positions. That is a sound investment in our future that only Labor will make.

The other big change coming down the path at the start of July is the childcare benefit scheme becoming the childcare subsidy scheme. Something urgently needs to be done to reform child care. Child care is becoming increasingly unaffordable in this country. Unfortunately, instead of fixing the system this government is making it harder by changing the activity test, which means 1,372 families in Shortland will be worse off. For example, families earning more than $65,000 with one stay-at-home parent may fail the activity test and be ineligible for any childcare subsidy. Families that rely on seasonal, irregular, contract or casual work will lose access to 24 hours of child care if their hours fall under eight in any fortnight. That is a real possibility in the increasingly insecure work environment. There are many casual and seasonal workers in my electorate. My electorate is chock-full of tradies, aged-care workers, disability workers and nurses. Some of those jobs are hostage to changing and falling hours at very short notice. They stand to lose 24 hours of child care per fortnight if they work less than eight hours, through no fault of their own. That is what I'm concerned about: 1,300 families in Shortland becoming worse off because of this government's childcare changes. This is appalling and short-sighted.

The first five years of a child's development are the most crucial, so if we want to invest in our children's future, we need to invest more in child care, not less. Part of that investment is also boosting pay for early childhood educators. Early childhood educators do a phenomenal job under very difficult circumstances. With two kids in early childhood education, I'm in awe of their educators. They have to have a minimum of a cert III qualification. Often they have a cert IV. Some of them have university degrees. Yet they are paid as little as $21 an hour. It is an absolute disgrace to pay our early childhood educators as little as $21 an hour. It is unacceptable. It is selling them short. It is selling our children's future short. It's no coincidence that this is allowed to happen in an industry where 97 per cent of the workforce is female. It's another example of the gender gap that we all need to work much harder to rectify.

Unfortunately, the priorities for my electorate will go unsatisfied again under this government. The priorities for my electorate are adequate investment in health care and proper investment in education—school-age and early childhood, university and VET. Again, this government is selling them short, because, ultimately, this government is hostage to its true constituents. This government is hostage to high-income earners. It's hostage to large corporations. It's hostage to the hard Right that control the Liberal Party and that is threatening the preselections of many members of the Liberal Party right now. It's hostage to a shrinking minority of the population. The great majority of the population are suffering under this short-sighted, mean, arrogant and out-of-touch government. The election cannot come soon enough.