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Monday, 18 June 2001
Page: 27819

Mr LAWLER (8:00 PM) —I would like to start my contribution to the debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2001-2002 by congratulating the government on yet another surplus to further reduce the debilitating debt that this country was left with after the period in which the Labor government was in office. People probably know that in the 90 years prior to 1991 the accumulated debt of the Commonwealth was $16.9 billion and in the five years after, between 1991 and 1996, it blew out by about $80 billion to $96½ billion.

The last few years, in which this government was charged with bringing the nation's books back into order, resulted in the last year with Australian taxpayers paying $4 billion less per year in interest than they were only some four years earlier. Some interesting statistics show that in 1995 we as a nation, unbelievably, spent the same amount in interest as we did on schools and hospitals and in 1995 we spent nearly as much on defence as we did on paying interest bills. As a businessperson, I think any businessperson would say there is nothing particularly wrong with debt, particularly in business, because most debt is tax deductible, but in effect it means that, if you compare the nation's debt and interest repayments to a business's debt and interest repayments, we would really have to make a comparison of a business being in debt for $8 billion, because half of it being tax deductible means you are up for only $4 billion. But governments do not work like that. Governments are part way, I guess, between businesses and private people.

When the Labor Party were in government they not only had a garage sale, sold all their assets and increased taxes but they still ran deficits. It is the government equivalent, I guess, of a private house running up unmanageable debt. We all see it in our electorate offices where people come in day after day and, by and large, when they are in financial difficulty, it is somewhat of their own making—sometimes not, but it comes about from uncontrolled spending, no matter how noble that spending might be. It might be spending on a comfortable home for the family or on a nice car, but if you sell your car and your furniture and spend the proceeds and still go and rack up more bills on your Mastercard to pay your Visa card, you just run into an untenable situation, which was the issue that faced this government when they came in in 1996.

Sometime that kind of uncontrolled spending has got to stop, and stop it did in 1996. Was there pain? Of course, there was. Is there pain in a household when a household has to cut back and live within its means? Yes, of course, there is. Does everyone in the house agree what the cutbacks are or where those cutbacks should take place, even if they are particularly noble disciplines that that money is being spent on—perhaps dancing lessons, sports or extra tuition for the kids? Everybody does not agree where the cutbacks should be in a household nor have they agreed where the cutbacks should have been that were forced on the Australian government. But, as I said, stopping the spending was what it had to do.

The ALP often make comments about this government collecting more tax than ever before. That is hardly surprising, since there are 800,000 more people working now than there were in 1996. The economy is expanding and interest rate cuts have meant more spending so it clearly stands to reason that if that is happening there is more tax collected. Having said that, I have always been a firm believer that, if you claim all the credit when things go well, you also take all the blame when things go poorly. But, clearly, if a country is in a reasonable economic position, it will perform more strongly than it otherwise would in good times and it will fare less badly in tough times.

I would like to touch on a couple of things in the budget that relate particularly to my electorate. Clearly, there is not enough time this evening to go through the lot. One of the most welcome things that has happened in my electorate is that self-funded retirees have beaten a path to my door—as they did before this budget to tell me what needed to be done—to tell me, to their credit, that they recognise that their demands have been met. Increasing the effective income tax free threshold for self-funded retirees and pensioners to $20,000 for singles or $32,600 for couples was most welcome. By definition, I guess, this led to an increase in the Medicare levy threshold to that same amount. There has also been the delivery of the non-taxable lump sum payment of $300 to all those of pension age on the pension or part pension. One of the most welcome things was lifting the income limit for the seniors health card to $50,000 for singles and $80,000 for couples. In my previous life as a pharmacist, when the income limit was lifted before—actually it may have been the introduction of the seniors health card—it was an extraordinarily welcome measure. I understand that an extra 50,000 Australians will obtain the card. For those who do not know, it is quite easy for someone who is a self-funded retiree on blood pressure medication or lipid lowering medication and, say, an ulcer medication to be spending of the order of $70 to $80 a month. That same person, in receipt of a seniors health care card, will spend of the order of $10 a month. It is therefore certainly a measure that is most welcome.

Regional universities—and, obviously, the most notable regional university in my books is Charles Sturt University—have been allocated about 6,000 new regional places over four years. Speaking to both students and staff at the university based in Dubbo, which has already been promised another $9 million to expand their services in Dubbo—and they are halfway through spending that $9 millionI found that that is most welcome. I was speaking recently to the dean and he pointed out the importance of expanding the roll-out of regional universities. He pointed out that, even in the early stages of the Dubbo campus, there were 300 more people receiving a tertiary education from the western area of New South Wales than there would have been if the university campus had not been there. That is not counting students who would have relocated from Albury or Wagga to Dubbo—this was 300 people receiving a tertiary education who otherwise would not have received a tertiary education. There are 6,000 more places going to those universities, including Charles Sturt University.

Obviously the motor trade was very excited about businesses being able to claim full input tax credits for the purchase of motor vehicles. One of the other most welcome things—perhaps it was more recognised in the country and less recognised in the city—was the just under $600 million over four years to upgrade the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. This has been of great concern to people not only in the rural and pastoral industries but also in the communities that rely on those industries for their wellbeing. It has been of great concern that the outbreak that occurred in England could quite easily happen in Australia. Since this government has been in, it has constantly been upgrading the Quarantine and Inspection Service, but this increase of nearly $600 million will go a long way to developing a fortress Australia, even though we cannot, of course, be anything other than ever vigilant. If this dreadful disease gets into Australia, the impact on our part of the world, in country New South Wales and country Australia, and therefore the impact on Australia as a whole, will be incredibly huge. I understand that the minister is looking at further measures to address preparation in the event of this ever happening. One of the great concerns of people in my part of the world is the proliferation of feral pigs. I understand that pigs spread the virus at something like 1,500 times the rate cattle do. That is certainly something that has to be looked at and addressed so that, if we are unfortunate enough to get such an outbreak, by having some control over the feral pig numbers we will be able to quarantine the area and more effectively control the disease.

The strength of this government's economic management has been brought to bear, certainly over the last six months, and the evidence is there for everyone to see. The Roads to Recovery package was incredibly welcome in my part of the world. In my first couple of years as the member for Parkes—and I point out that Parkes goes from Dubbo, Parkes and Forbes in the east right out to the South Australian border and up to the Queensland border—everywhere I went in the remote areas of New South Wales we had thousands of kilometres of unsealed roads. In fact, on a recent trip, when I was heading out west, I left Cobar on Monday at lunchtime and arrived in Bourke on Thursday evening the same week, and in all that time I spent about an hour driving on sealed roads. Everywhere you go in my part of the world the roads issue has been raised, despite the fact that the Leader of the Opposition believes that roads are trivial and unimportant.

Since the announcement of the $1.2 billion by this government—which it has been able to do by managing the economy to the degree that it has—the comments about funding for rural roads have almost dropped off. The main comment has been not only that do we need that $1.2 billion—which, as well as delivering better roads, is going to deliver jobs in our communities—but also that we need it extended for longer than four years. There is not a council in the western division of New South Wales that would not support that.

Another very practical announcement in the budget—which built on the previous budget, in which we spent just over half a billion dollars in new programs to address the shortage of medical practitioners in regional Australia—turns to nursing, which is also extremely welcome. There has been recognition that, while delivering doctors to the bush is important, there is also a critical shortage of nurses and allied health workers in the bush. Now $13 million over four years is going to improve access to undergraduate nursing education for rural and regional students. I understand that there will be 100 rural nursing scholarships worth $10,000 per year available for rural students studying nursing in rural locations. It is not only for rural students; it will allow others to spend their training and their formative young adult years learning in a rural location and those future members of the work force will clearly be far more likely to stay in regional areas.

One of the less publicised announcements in the budget which is critical in one part of my electorate, in Broken Hill, is the commitment of $43½ million to improving after-hours primary medical care services. I am having a meeting in the next few weeks with various providers of health care in Broken Hill, including GPs, the area health service, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and some others, to address the critical shortage of after-hours GP services in Broken Hill. By being able to work together and to access funding under that federal government program, it is my belief that they will go a great way towards addressing the problem faced when getting medical attention in Broken Hill after hours. To a large degree, that load has been borne by the area health service.

One of the other significant amounts of spending that the government has announced recently is in response to the Besley report and is going to be a huge bonus for telecommunications infrastructure in country Australia. Probably the most significant part of that announcement—and there were several parts to it—will be the delivery of mobile phone coverage to any town which has a population of more than 500 and about $50 million for improved mobile phone coverage. They are only two of the areas of improved telecommunications infrastructure but, again, they are most welcome and greatly anticipated by my communities.

One of the important announcements in the budget for the electorate of Parkes was an increase in ABC funding. I understand that there will be an additional $71 million over the next four years as a result of this budget. We in Dubbo and in the areas surrounding Dubbo are anxiously looking to the ABC to open studio broadcasting from Dubbo, instead of delivering the service to the central western region from Orange, as it does now. When they broadcast from Orange, they have a huge area to cover news wise and a lot of the area misses out getting information. It is very important to the strength of rural communities to have a radio station that looks at issues locally and not from a greater regional perspective.

Speaking about other things rural and the things that the government's economic management has enabled us to do, I heard through the grapevine today that the Labor Party, through their minions on the ground in the electorate of Parkes, have been spreading, as often happens, false rumours about the flood assistance package, indicating that the money was all targeted at the electorate of Gwydir for the benefit of the Deputy Prime Minister. Can I say that the money that was delivered and is going to be delivered in the flood assistance package is absolutely critical to the ongoing strength of the economy in western and north-western New South Wales. I have just called up on the Internet some of the details from the flood assistance package. In the electorate of Parkes there have been 810 successful applications so far. They are grouped in postcodes. In some of the areas where we cannot separate the postcodes, a further 500 are linked between Parkes and Gwydir. I assure anybody who is interested that the electorate of Parkes has been thoroughly well serviced by the flood assistance package. I get daily phone calls from farmers who have applied for assistance under this package. When they receive it, they come to me and say that they would have been out of their farm this year had they not been able to access that assistance.

There is a bit of a misconception that this money has been targeted purely at farmers. From my perspective, the target was more rural communities, who are the beneficiaries of farmers spending this money, rather than the farmers themselves. Over the years, the Rural Financial Counselling Service has provided tremendous services to the farming community when they have faced tough years of drought and decreasing commodity prices, and they have done it again with the flood assistance package. There were many people on the edge of their seats, most welcoming the announcement that the government will provide $17.4 million from 2001-02 to 2003-04 to extend the Rural Financial Counselling Service's program. At this juncture, I congratulate the Rural Financial Counselling Service that operates in the electorate of Parkes for the absolutely fantastic job it does in servicing its constituents, not only in the area of rural financial counselling but in the other areas that it has been asked to expand its services into—for example, providing assistance in setting up rural transaction centres. When it goes to do that sort of activity, its communication with the community allows it to teach the community how to access other programs which deliver great benefits as well.

There are one or two more things I would briefly like to mention. One is the extra $1 billion which is going to be added to the Natural Heritage Trust and which is a top-up to the $1.5 million already committed in the 1996-97 to 2001 budget. There are any number of successful programs in my electorate that have been funded by the Natural Heritage Trust. Landcare, Bushcare, Rivercare and all these sorts of groups value add the money that is spent by the Natural Heritage Trust by adding in kind and giving the government—and therefore the Australian community—far more value for money than they would have done had it been a purely funded project which employed people to do all of the work.

Finally, a very small measure in the circumstances of the budget—but, again, one that provoked a dramatic response in my electorate—was funding of about $600,000 to upgrade the Bureau of Meteorology base in Cobar. On the Internet it will provide updates, every 10 minutes, of weather forecasts in the western region around Cobar. To those who do not know western New South Wales and do not know much about rural communities, that may not seem like a very important announcement, but I assure you that the radio station operating out of Bourke told me they have received more phone calls about this announcement than any other in this budget or previous budgets.

For me, they are the highlights of the budget, and they are able to be delivered because of the sound economic management of this government. There is no doubt that there have been some hard times and some tough decisions have been taken over the last few years, but we are now seeing the benefit of those hard decisions and the government is able to assist those communities in need when they need it without having to go to the Bankcard or the Mastercard to borrow further.