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Wednesday, 7 March 2001
Page: 25367

Mr SAWFORD (11:22 AM) —Callers to my office in the last couple of months have revealed an increasing frustration with the failures of both the federal and the South Australian governments. In health and aged care, in education and training, in jobs and welfare, both governments are seen as not listening and as being uncaring. The callers offer plenty of reasons to support this view. There is a sense that the arrogance and funding priorities of both governments are creating enormous divisions in our society. The rich-poor divide is getting greater, and that should be a matter of great shame to us all.

Australia is a lucky country; it is a wealthy country. Governments should be closing the rich-poor divide rather than widening it. Yet the policies of both governments serve only to widen it. The sharp escalation in social problems and despair over the last five years can be laid squarely at their feet. Take aged care, for example. A constituent of mine, Mr Robert Burzynski, of Ottoway, has told my office of the despair he feels in trying to find nursing home accommodation for his ailing father. So sad is the story and so widespread the problem that even the Adelaide Advertiser ran a feature headed `Hospital overload'.

Robert Burzynski said that he had placed his father on waiting lists at 26 nursing homes. While they would prefer one catering to the Polish community, they were willing to go anywhere. His father, Mr Peter Burzynski, is currently in hospital. Recent strokes and the onset of dementia and blindness mean that he is now too frail to be cared for at home. But it is not hospital care that he needs. He is in a hospital simply because there are no vacancies in nursing homes. The culprit for that sad state of affairs is a combination of the federal and state governments.

Mr Burzynski is occupying a hospital bed that should be available to someone who is in need of hospital care, not nursing home care. Private health cover has allowed Mr Burzynski to be cared for in a private hospital but when that entitlement expires, as it will shortly, he will be moved to a public hospital. This will just add to the overload at public hospitals. Already, more than 160 beds in South Australian public hospitals are occupied by aged persons waiting for a vacancy in a nursing home. It has been as high as 200. That means that 160 people who are in need of hospital care have to wait for that care until a bed becomes available. Ambulance drive-bys are becoming all too frequent. The situation is scandalous and will get worse unless government action is taken to rebuild our public health system. Peter Burzynski said that one nursing home he contacted had 100 beds and 200 people on their waiting list—a hopeless situation.

A constituent from Seaton came to see me the other week. He has had to move 60 kilometres to Hamley Bridge, a country town, in order to be near his father who needed nursing home accommodation—the only vacancy after 15 months of trying. Some people are waiting for six to 12 months for a nursing home place, and the delay is causing considerable hardship for their family and carers. As Jean Rosewall of the Aged Care and Housing Group said, `The Federal Government must realise the situation is at a desperate stage.' Our health system is collapsing under the weight of neglect and lack of care. If the federal and state governments were at least prepared to acknowledge this, there might be some hope of a turnaround.

The Prime Minister has proved that he can do a backflip—in fact, he has done a couple of bellyflops lately—and I call on him to do another on his government's hospital and nursing home care funding policies. He should also do a backflip on the health care rebate issue, because this expensive stick to force people into private health cover has done absolutely nothing to ease the pressure on public hospitals. Instead of being fixated on private health insurance, the government should provide the funds needed to solve the public hospital and nursing home crises.

Evidence of the growing rich-poor divide in our society can also be found in the government's treatment of pensioners and those seeking assistance through Centrelink. For example, the frustration experienced by callers to the Centrelink lines may seem a minor matter to some, but it is symptomatic of the attitude the federal government seemingly has to anyone on a benefit of any kind, including carers and family payments. Callers to my office last week drew to my attention the fact that they had been trying for two days to get through to Centrelink but the phones were constantly engaged. They could not even get into the system, where waits of sometimes hours are common.

Why would the phones have been running so hot last week? I suspect it might have had something to do with the disquiet in the Liberal party room. I suspect that one of the reasons would have been the public exposure of the deceit of the Prime Minister on the age pension issue. When the government introduced the GST last year, they said that pensioners would receive a four per cent pension increase as compensation for the higher prices they would be paying for everyday items because of the new tax. But the fine print said something entirely different. It said that half of that increase was not compensation for the GST at all but simply an advance on the next scheduled cost of living increase. So, when the next CPI indexation is made this month, the government will take back two per cent of the four per cent that was paid last July.

It can only be presumed that the Prime Minister believes that two per cent is adequate compensation for the GST, which is a nonsense. All the evidence shows that is a nonsense. In fact, most of the Liberal backbench knows that that is a nonsense—they have been reporting it to the Prime Minister and the Treasurer. Either that or he thought he could get away with a sleight of hand. Does he care that pensioners and others on fixed incomes are now worse off than before the GST was introduced? Clearly not.

It is not only pensioners who will have a two per cent cut this month. All social benefits that increased by four per cent last year will be cut by two per cent. It is worse: it includes pharmaceutical allowances, parenting payments, telephone allowances and unemployment benefits. This is the second trick the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have played on pensioners over the GST. The Pension Bonus Scheme, in which all age pensioners were promised a $1,000 bonus for a GST, was the first.

Mr Nugent —That is a dishonest statement.

Mr SAWFORD —People on the other side of parliament are very sensitive at this time. That promise was a lie, and all pensioners know it. Many pensioners, especially those most in need, received not one red cent from the bonus scheme. Yet because of the GST many age pensioners, like everyone else, have had to pay more for everything, including petrol. The government has been dragged kicking and screaming into making a cut in fuel excise of 1.5c, but the extra money which motorists have paid since last July has disappeared into the government's coffers and has gone forever. For pensioners and others on low incomes, who have to watch their spending very carefully, the loss is significant.

It must be remembered that the Prime Minister's recent backflip on petrol did no more than give back to motorists what belonged to them all along. Before the last election, the Prime Minister promised that the price of fuel at the pump would not rise because of the GST. Yet fuel did cost more because of the GST. When protests followed, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer simply thumbed their noses at motorists—and at their backbench. In the last nine months, the government has wrongfully snaffled a massive amount of extra tax. The government should make good its debt by putting that money back into the community in any number of responsible ways, including that provision of much needed nursing home beds, not just in South Australia but all across Australia.

Under this coalition government, the increasing divide between the rich and the rest of the community is also evident in education. The government's new school funding system is one of the most discriminatory, unfair and divisive pieces of legislation ever put forward in this parliament. It provides an average of $4,000 each for public schools, about $6 a head, but an average of nearly $1 million each for the richest private schools. In fact, Trinity got $3 million. That is, the rich category 1 schools—the old schools of most of the government frontbench—will receive $200 for every $1 going to state schools. What a differential. The less wealthy private schools, like Catholic schools—

Mr SAWFORD —You are very sensitive over there. They also fare very badly in comparison with the category 1 schools. They will receive just $1 for every $12 going to the rich schools. You would not want to be a Catholic under this government. And this refers only to public funding. Private schools also have an income from fees and from the often massive donations from wealthy people with prior or current associations with the schools. In contrast, one of our local public schools considers a fundraising event yielding a few hundred dollars to be a great success.

There has always been a massive gap between the facilities and opportunities available to students attending wealthy private schools and those available to the 70 per cent of Australian children who attend public schools. What a great political strategy: you kick dirt into the faces of 70 per cent of Australian families, you con 29 per cent of the private school sector that you are actually giving them something when you are giving them nothing and you reward one per cent of the private school population while kicking dirt into the faces of the other 99 per cent. And the coalition wonders why it is in trouble. Has the government attempted to close the gap? No, it just widens the chasm. Teachers in public schools and the low fee private schools do a fantastic job with limited resources, and they deserve support. But the government shows nothing but disrespect for them, their students and their parents.

The Prime Minister may have thought his backflip on petrol would save him. Unfortunately for him, it has turned out to be a bellyflop. However, petrol is just one thing the electorate is angry about. The education funding issue is of even graver concern in the community. The Findon High School council, in my electorate, unanimously condemned the federal government's school funding arrangements, saying that the provision of a high quality public education for all is now severely under threat. I call on the Prime Minister and the Treasurer to revisit this disastrous policy and try again, this time with fairness and equity as the touchstone.

While I am discussing backflips, I call on the Prime Minister to do a full backflip—perhaps he could do a pike with it as well—on research and development funding, not the half backflip he has offered so far. Since 1996, the government has taken $5 billion out of universities and research and development and has now announced it is putting just $2.9 billion back. I suspect, though, that the Prime Minister's backflips will not save him or his backbench. Judging by calls to my office and by conversations with people in electorate, the voters are not in a forgiving mood. Perhaps some tax has come off petrol and perhaps some money has been put back into research and development, but the mood of the electorate is that it is too little too late. People know that the government has for years cut welfare services, job training programs, hospital funding, education funding and support for Medicare, particularly out in the regions. Every noise the government makes now, aimed at patching over those cuts, is treated by the electorate with the great scepticism it deserves.

Similarly, people know that the government has poured massive amounts of money into the rich end of town. They know that big business and some very wealthy individuals have done extremely well under this coalition but that the average person is much worse off. They know that much public money has been redirected from public hospitals and health care services to the private sector, via the rebate and other measures, and that our basic health care services have been run down. They can follow the money trail—they are not stupid—from public education to private education, from public institutions to private pockets, and they can see that the high student retention rates of a decade ago are disappearing, as too many children now leave without any worthwhile qualifications and without any real job prospects. They all know someone—perhaps someone in their family, a neighbour or a friend—who has lost their job in midlife and who has witnessed the government's cold indifference to their plight.

Most of all, people are now aware that the government has been asleep at the wheel. The economy is stalling, the dollar has collapsed and our national debt is careering out of control. The economic credentials of this government were always lousy, consisting, as they did, of a GST and not much else, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. People know that the current downturn, the record debt and the downward spiral of the dollar are the price that must be paid for the government's failure to maintain proper funding and other support for education, research, training and jobs. Most of all, people now see the GST as the unfair tax that it is.

The pattern of preference of both the federal and state governments is clear, and the signs are there that no number of backflips can save this Prime Minister. What people want now is a return to fairness and a return to the provision of adequate public services. They want governments to provide quality public health care, they want quality public education, they want to know that there is a nursing home bed available for their parents when the time comes and they want governments to show care and concern for people who are in need of assistance. Most of all, people want an end to any policy which serves to increase the rich-poor divide in our community.

People are fed up with seeing our country falling apart at the seams, with the dislocation of joblessness, inadequate health care, run down schools and a new tax on just about everything forcing prices even higher. They are fed up with government sell-offs of public utilities to the big end of town and then being faced with soaring bills for these services. I could also add the demutualisation of mutual societies in this country, which is an absolute disgrace, but perhaps I will address that at another time. They are fed up with the failure of governments to provide basic infrastructure such as sufficient electrical power. The series of blackouts in South Australia has caused enormous frustration and financial loss, especially for small business. California, here we come.

They are fed up with the failure of governments to make a real effort to solve the unemployment problem and to halt the damage that underemployment is causing to our community. They are fed up with political stunts like the Work for the Dole scheme, which has proved to be next to useless in providing long-term opportunities for the jobless. The recent report by the Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Workplace Relations, Age counts, shows there is an enormous problem in this country with unemployment and underemployment. The epidemic of joblessness is causing serious damage to the fabric of our community. Every day it is ignored, the worse is the damage.

The lack of opportunities for employment and training for people who find themselves out of work, especially in midlife, is having a devastating effect on families and communities. But, because the problem is largely hidden and mainly concentrated in the poorer suburbs and regions, the government has not shown the slightest interest in tackling it. All people need to feel that they are valued members of the community. To provide the opportunity of paid work is the best way that this can be achieved. If governments fail to provide the necessary opportunities, then the personal damage to the jobless and the longer-term damage to the community will be much higher in the end. I call on the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the coalition to make yet another backflip and recommit to job training programs and the creation of employment in this country. Perhaps they also could look at overemployment, because there are many people in this country who are overemployed—they are working far too long, they are under pressure and they are frightened that if they do not work those hours they will lose their job.

There are lots of maladies in our society, including illnesses and depression, which is at such a level in this country it is frightening. I have always believed, with regard to a lot of human maladies such as poor health, psychosomatic illnesses—which are very real and cause real pain—depression, alienation, anger, drug and alcohol abuse and the break-up of families, that if you give the person the dignity of a job then most of those maladies disappear. People in our society build their image, their self-esteem, around employment. That is how they identify themselves. It is no good saying one thing and meaning another.

In the last 20 years we have listened to the philosophies of economists. Well, I can tell you there is not one economist in the world that has any philosophy, because they are not trained in philosophy; they are trained to give financial options to governments. But what has happened around the treasuries of the world, in the Reserve in the United States, in the chancelleries in the United Kingdom and in Europe, is that economists have conned people in government, people like me, the Deputy Speaker, the member for Newcastle and the member for Hinkler. They have conned us over the last 20 years that they actually have a philosophy in terms of what a country ought to go to. They never have. I have never met an economist with a philosophy. Why would you be surprised? They are not trained that way. Yet we have been falling for the promotion of failed Treasury policies forever and ever. It is time it stopped.