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Tuesday, 5 June 2001
Page: 27274

Mrs HULL (4:54 PM) —This year's budget announcement has delivered for rural and regional Australia, and I believe that it has also laid down the foundation for a stable future. The Treasurer has announced the coalition government's fifth consecutive budget surplus—a cash surplus of $1.5 billion after the repayment of nearly $60 billion of Labor's $80 billion debt. As the Treasurer indicated in his speech, back in 1995 the Keating Labor government spent the same amount on interest payments as it did on schools and hospitals. Due to the competition with homebuyers and business to borrow money, Labor's debt caused interest rates to soar, forcing many small businesses to close and unemployment to hit a record high. During the Hawke-Keating Labor rule, my small business was paying interest rates of 25 per cent. Paying off Labor's debt and reducing our interest bills means that, as shown in this budget, this government can now spend money on more important things. The Hawke-Keating Labor government tore the heart out of regional Australia. This budget is now about putting the heart back into regional Australia, and this government has been doing that since 1996.

This government's sound fiscal policy has delivered the lowest small business interest rates in 30 years. I have a major commitment to the survival of small business and, as I have said many times before in this House, small businesses are very important to my electorate of Riverina. They are the engine room of the nation's economy and our largest employment provider. Their money stays predominantly local and multiplies to bring added benefits to the district. In expanding their businesses, they also utilise local providers. They traditionally buy local because they are local. Their profits do not disappear into national profits or, indeed, into overseas bank accounts. Their money stays to support the communities that they service and that they are part of.

This budget continues to support small business by further reforming our outdated tax system by again reducing the company tax rate from 34 to 30 per cent, cutting tax for business by around $2 billion per year. The simplified tax system will effectively reduce small business tax payments by more than $1 billion in the first three years and allow eligible small businesses to do their tax accounting on a cash basis with simpler depreciation and trading stock rules. The abolition of financial institutions duty will save around $1.2 billion a year, which will be particularly beneficial to small businesses with a high turnover whose deposits were hit with the duty every time they did their banking. Registered businesses are now able to claim full input tax credits on the purchase of motor vehicles, and when wholesale sales tax was replaced by the GST the cost of a new vehicle fell by around seven per cent— and that is a great advantage to small business. The availability of full input tax credits further reduces the cost of motor vehicles to businesses by around nine per cent.

This government has allocated an additional $5 million to the Small Business Incubator Program, which assists small businesses to establish themselves by providing premises, advice, services and support in the crucial early stages of business development. This program has been successful in reducing the failure rate of new businesses, particularly in rural and regional Australia. In recognising small business's contribution to employment, this budget offers significant incentives to assist employers to take on new apprentices, with almost $2 billion being provided over the next four years for the highly successful New Apprenticeship initiative. A significant contribution has also been made to develop and enhance the business skills of many small business owners by funding projects that provide access to mentoring, information services and skills development through the Small Business Enterprise Culture Program. This program has proven extremely beneficial, as it caters for small business people who require access to skills development courses but do not have time to attend TAFE or university.

Suicide in rural and regional Australia is one of the paramount concerns. This government, in this budget's 2001-02 health initiatives, has provided better outcomes in mental health care. Mental illness is one of the most serious health issues facing Australia, with 2.4 million Australians—that is, 18 per cent of the population—experiencing a mental health problem each year. The Mental health and wellbeing profile of adults 1997 from the Australian Bureau of Statistics supports this. Most people use their GP as the first point for help with mental health issues. In recognition of this, this government, under the Minister for Health and Aged Care, the Hon. Michael Wooldridge, will provide $120.4 million over the next four years to assist general practitioners to develop their skills in mental health diagnosis, care, planning and treatment. A new Medicare Benefits Schedule item will be introduced to enable appropriately trained GPs to provide a limited range of non-medication based therapies. The government will also support doctors to form effective links with other mental health professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists.

This package will significantly improve the mental health care available to Australians—to all Australians but, more importantly, to rural and regional Australians. It builds on previous measures, including the National Depression Initiative and National Primary Mental Health Care Initiative, to provide a comprehensive range of care options. The National Depression Initiative, which is supported by Commonwealth funding of $17.5 million over five years, from 2000 to 2005, is being carried forward by Beyond Blue, which was established in late 2000 and launched by the minister for health just a few weeks ago here in Parliament House. The aims of this initiative are to increase community awareness and understanding of depression, promote professional training and development, and support research into prevention, early intervention and treatment and management of depression. This government has significantly improved all of the prospects for mental health patients, now and into the future, across Australia.

In addition, in this budget the government has provided for an increase in patient rebates for GP services of about $300 million over four years. This has been something that GPs have been asking for for some time. This government, in this budget, has delivered.

Mrs HULL —After long consultation, as the member for Mallee has quite rightly indicated. This measure will particularly benefit patients with complex or chronic conditions, who may need to spend more time with their doctor, so they are not shunted in and out of a surgery. They can have quality time with their professional and take time out to understand their complex or chronic condition. The measure provides increased rebates for longer consultations.

This measure forms part of the government's response to the relative value study—that we are increasingly hearing the AMA talk about—of the Medicare Benefits Schedule, MBS, which showed that patient rebates for medical consultations by GPs were underfunded relative to rebates provided for medical procedures performed by specialists. This government is committed to ensuring the work of GPs is appropriately recognised—and so it should be recognised. Rural and regional GPs across Australia are the foundation of their communities. This increase in Medicare rebates paves the way for a comprehensive restructure of GP attendance items under the MBS to better reward quality care.

I come from the Riverina, notoriously known for its level of asthma. This `better GP management of asthma' strategy provides for the proactive management of asthma by GPs and will assist those with moderate to severe asthma. More than two million Australians have asthma, including one in four primary school children, one in seven teenagers and one in 10 adults. Asthma is a potentially life-threatening disease which can be controlled by appropriate diagnosis and management. The minister for health and this government are assisting by providing better strategies to help care for these people.

Something that has long been of concern to me is the shortage of doctors and trained nurses in regional and rural areas, which is currently at crisis level. This shortage is due in large part to the extremely difficult working conditions and lack of assistance in most rural practices and hospitals, but this shortage has happened over many years. We came to the position in 1996 where the deterioration in the quality of nurses and health practitioners was demonstrated by the way in which they were leaving hospitals and their respective places of employment. In this budget the government has responded with measures worth $117.3 million to encourage doctors to employ nurses within rural practices and encourage rural Australians to consider nursing as a career or to return to nursing. The employment of practice nurses will allow general practitioners in these practices to focus more efficiently on diagnosis and clinical care, while allowing the nurses to assist in managing chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma, conducting health assessments and providing clinical support.

Also of assistance to doctors is the government's commitment to after hours primary medical care services. That has been something long in coming, but it is finally represented here by this government's action in reducing the after hours workload on rural doctors, while ensuring that patients have access to the advice and services that they require. These measures are aimed at relieving some of the pressures on rural doctors. This will in turn assist in recruitment and retention in all rural areas. Currently this is a dramatic issue. It is something that needs to be addressed urgently. This government—the coalition government—have put all of their thoughts and powers into ensuring that rural constituents have a better quality of life.

A sum of $5.2 million over four years has been allocated to making available re-entry training programs for rural nurses—to be provided via a scholarship program supplying approximately 400 scholarships each year, at up to $3,000 per scholarship, to aid former rural nurses by removing some of the financial hurdles involved in their re-entry to the work force. This is a significant step forward for health in rural and regional Australia. People that have to be hospitalised can have surety that their hospitals will be in operation, because of this initiative by the government.

I welcomed the announcement of 100 rural nursing scholarships to educate rural students at a rural campus, as rural students are more likely to end up serving patients in rural and regional areas. These $10,000 scholarships will actively encourage our rural kids to seriously undertake nursing as a career and lift some of the financial burden. An additional 10 scholarships will provided for indigenous students or Aboriginal health workers to undertake nursing education.

Labor's legacy was a failed health system. Labor failed the health of all Australians during their 13 years in government. Labor failed to deliver adequate health outcomes for all Australians. They failed to deliver meaningful solutions on rural health. During Labor's period in government they allowed a decline in rural health services and an exodus of GPs from the bush. Labor have also failed to adequately fund the public hospital system, and they continue to underfund the public hospital system in New South Wales under the Carr government.

One of the future benefactors of this government's budget, I would hope, will be Charles Sturt University. Charles Sturt University was created out of two colleges of advanced education in 1989. It then had a student population of about 13,000, with a limited course portfolio and almost no research activity. At establishment there was no increased investment by government in infrastructure or operating grants. There was no compensation for the cost of travel between the campuses or for the STD phone calls or remoteness from the metropolitan area. It was established at the time of the Hawke Labor government.

Despite these impediments, on its own merits Charles Sturt University, under the astute guidance of the soon to retire vice-chancellor, Professor Cliff Bake, is the success story of the new universities. CSU has answered the challenge, and it now boasts that—and it has every right to boast that. It is the largest distance education provider in Australia and leads the way with online education, something that the coalition has built on in its budget and its answer to the Besley report. CSU now has 36,000 students on its books and is in the top 10 Australian universities.

Charles Sturt University has more than 10,000 students studying offshore in some 10 different countries, placing it in the few top universities with overseas operations. It has answered the call of rural and regional Australia by providing education programs in those areas needed by rural Australia—for example, education, paramedical studies and nursing are recipients of this budget. Pharmacy is another recipient of this budget, as are physiotherapy, allied services, occupational therapy, radiography, environmental science and primary production. I am hopeful that many of the initiatives within the budget will benefit Charles Sturt University, because Charles Sturt University trains people in the country for the country. Some 60 per cent of its students are from rural areas. This is a great boast for Charles Sturt University. Charles Sturt University trains the vast majority of winemakers in Australia. The wine industry, of course, is one of Australia's success stories of the last decade.

Mr Fitzgibbon —You put a wine equalisation tax on them.

Mrs HULL —You would know that, member for Hunter. It boasts Australian success stories. CSU provides the education program for the New South Wales police. Much of the GST that is collected by the federal government and passed on to the state of New South Wales is actually for training those police in academies, so the New South Wales state Labor government is the recipient of much of the well generated GST into their coffers. Charles Sturt University is an absolute credit to our nation and one that I am indeed very proud of. We, as a nation, need to support our regional universities, like Charles Sturt University, because they play a large role in regional development, in providing professionals for rural Australia and in helping to overcome the educational disadvantage of rural and remote communities. It is an investment well spent and with high returns for our nation.

Twenty-four ex-prisoners of war and approximately 72 widows of ex-prisoners of war in the Riverina will benefit from the one-off payment to former Australian prisoners of war of the Japanese and civilian internees and detainees of the Japanese. Australian service personnel and civilians held captive by Japanese suffered unique hardships during their captivity due to the Japanese soldiers' naivety of international laws concerning prisoners.

In November of last year it gave me great pleasure to be able to announce to my electorate an additional boost of over $28 million to local road funding as part of the four-year Roads to Recovery program delivered by the Deputy Prime Minister in his portfolio. This funding will provide for the Riverina additional job opportunities and improve safety on our local roads, with school buses no longer having to mix with heavy haulage on narrow and dangerous roads. Road transport is essential to the growth and sustainability of rural communities. Roads to Recovery is helping local councils to build a sound social and economic infrastructure by enhancing road safety, access to education, health care and other amenities and creating sustainable jobs.

The ABC is one of Australia's primary cultural institutions, with a very significant role to play in Australian life. The government is committed to ensuring that the ABC remains an independent national broadcaster, delivering quality programs such as those which the Riverina regional radio station delivers into my electorate. The government has illustrated a commitment of $71.2 million over the next four years, which will enable the corporation to increase local and regional programming across all ABC media.

Many of my Riverina constituents have recently welcomed the introduction of SBS as part of the government's television funds extension program, designed to bring SBS to viewers in rural and regional areas. We have been waiting a long time to receive the same quality of services experienced by those in metropolitan areas. I have in my electorate the communities of Griffith and Leeton, which have a 60 per cent Italian heritage base and 140 nationalities in that small area. They welcome SBS funding.

This regional Australia blue book is delivered by the Deputy Prime Minister. It gives a sense of pride to all regional members here. It is something that has followed on each year. It has been a significant source of inspiration to us all as members of parliament. I congratulate the government on their budget initiatives over the years, and I certainly congratulate the ever-increasing budget that is extended to rural and regional Australia to better the quality of life of the people that I represent in the Riverina electorate, the people that you represent also in your electorates and the people that the member for Mallee represents in his electorate. The member for Mallee recognises that he too uses this budget book. (Time expired)

Mr SPEAKER —Before I call the honourable member for Ryan, I remind the House that this is the honourable member's first speech and I ask the House to extend to her the usual courtesies.