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Monday, 18 June 2001
Page: 27842


Ms BURKE (9:44 PM) —The 2001-02 budget must go down as one of the more unique budgets produced by a federal government. Not only does it blatantly attempt to buy the votes of a section of the community in a botched attempt which has already failed miserably but, worse still, the budget is a document that will be judged harshly for what it fails to do. On budget night, the Treasurer announced with great glee that this budget was in surplus to the tune of $1.5 billion. This is despite the fact that the budget surplus has been downgraded almost as many times as the government has done backflips. In fact, the budget surplus for this financial year is a far cry from the $14.5 billion surplus predicted by the government for the financial year in the 1998-99 budget.

In addition to the disappearing surplus, this budget proves the following things. The much trumpeted personal income tax cuts have been grabbed back. The GST has had a disastrous impact upon our employment outlook. Since the introduction of the GST, there has been a rise in the unemployment rate of 0.8 per cent—an increase of 84,300 unemployed. In addition, the budget has confirmed that Australians are now being forced to live beyond their means because of the GST and we have seen soaring levels of household and credit card debt.

I turn to some of the specifics in the budget: firstly, the $300 one-off bonus payment. This budget measure is perhaps the most transparent of all the election bribes. It applies only to people receiving income support who are above the age pension level. The government estimates 2.2 million people will get the bonus. There are so many ironies associated with these paltry $300 bribes that it is hard to know where to start. Firstly, why will the government not pay the $1,000 the Prime Minister promised all Australians over 60? The budget could have afforded it and it would have gone some way to mending the damage done to pensioners since the introduction of the GST. Members will remember that around 40 per cent of people aged over 60 years of age did not receive any of the age savings bonus. Worse still, many older people had to suffer the humiliation of receiving a cheque for just $1.

Secondly, a total of 83,750 Australians aged over 55 will miss out on the $300 altogether. This group includes the following people aged between 55 and pension age: disability support pensioners, receivers of mature aged allowance and Newstart allowance, care payment recipients and wife pensioners. In addition, hundreds of thousands of people on low incomes aged under 55 who struggle to make ends meet as a result of the GST will also receive no compensation.

Immediately after the budget, my office was inundated by calls from angry people surviving on pensions who did not receive the $300. I had one woman tell me that she felt as though people on disability pensions do not exist in the mind of this government. Disability pensioners have been shifted off the unemployment ranks to improve the government's official unemployment rate, yet they receive no comfort. More often than not they are parents trying to manage their disability and raise a family. It was therefore a great shock to them that they were overlooked for this bonus. They, too, have bills to meet. It is impossible for them to draw any conclusion other than that this government does not see them as a block of votes it can buy.

The Treasurer described the $300 bonus as a payment which the budget can afford and which our older Australians deserve. Is the Treasurer saying that other pensioners do not deserve it? One of the most poignant stories I heard was from one of the carers in my electorate, Andrew Chryssafis, of Burwood, who cares full time for his frail elderly mother. He quit work 12 months ago to become her full-time carer. He is outraged that this government is discriminating against people in his position. He believes the government has totally misled pensioners. He firmly believed that the Treasurer's announcement meant that all pensioners would receive the $300 bonus. He even rang Centrelink the day after the budget announcement and they advised him that he would get the $300 as he was on a full pension. Through the government's advertising, Andrew has learnt that he is not getting this payment. Maybe the government is informing people—informing those who will not automatically get the payment. Andrew is dismayed by the discriminatory nature of the payment, by the government's misleading information and the lack of recognition that all pensioners, not just the aged, are being hurt by the GST.

My final comment on this one-off bribe is that it failed to do what it set out to do. Older people were not fooled. They see what the government has been trying to do. They see the bonus for the tawdry political trick that it is, and the government is foolish to believe that it has received any turnaround in support by including this cynical measure in the budget.

The other group in the age bracket targeted by this government is that of self-funded retirees. The budget includes the extension of the Commonwealth seniors health card and the telephone allowance to some self-funded retirees. While these extensions are welcome, up to 120,000 self-funded retirees will miss out and those self-funded retirees aged over 55 up to pension age get nothing from the budget—no additional tax break, no concession cards and no telephone allowance. This group accounts for one in four self-funded retirees.

The centrepiece of the government's attempt to buy self-funded retirees has been the increase in the effective tax-free threshold for pensions and self-funded retirees of age pension age. However, it appears that only one in four self-funded retirees will actually benefit. So why do so few self-funded retirees benefit? It is a result of the age restriction income test. Most self-funded retirees will not receive any additional benefit from the budget line measure. Self-funded retirees under age pension age are automatically ineligible for the low income aged persons rebate and Medicare levy threshold increase. Therefore they get no benefit from this measure. Retirees over age pension age either receive no additional benefit because their income is too low, or receive no additional benefit because their income is too high. Consequently, there are many very unhappy self-funded retirees who feel they have been misled by the fine print of the government's announcement.

As I said in my opening remarks, the budget should also be condemned for what it fails to provide. Two of the most notable areas of neglect are the delay in implementation of the government's new job program that does not actually start until September 2002, and the lack of spending on public education, TAFE and VET programs to equip our country with the skills we need to move forward.

I would like to discuss tonight the government's complete inability to tackle the aged care crisis. I cannot understand how the federal government could have framed a budget that was supposed to be full of goodies for older people yet neglected something as fundamental as aged care. This budget produced a $71 million cut from the aged care subsidies, which comes on top of a $90 million cut in 1999. The only additional money announced was $13.8 million for standards monitoring and complaints resolution, which is an ineffective attempt to tackle the symptoms of declining care standards, and a $2 million aged care communication, or spin doctoring, strategy. Yet there was not one single extra bed in this budget and this is despite the fact that as at 30 June 2000 there was a national shortage of 10,500 aged care beds. The most critical shortage of beds is in my home state of Victoria, where we currently have a shortage of in excess of 5,000 beds. As a result, waiting times for aged care in Victoria continue to grow. In 1997-98 just five per cent of Victorians assessed as needing nursing home care had to wait more than three months to find a bed; by 2000 that had blown out to 20 per cent. It is intolerable that one in five Victorians needing nursing home care are forced to wait more than three months for a bed. This puts immense pressures on families and on the Victorian public hospital system.

In my electorate of Chisholm there is a brand-new facility in Ashwood where 60 beds lie idle while older people wait in hospitals desperate for a nursing home bed. The Cabrini nursing home has fallen victim to the government's tardiness in providing the bed licences the facility needs to start caring for residents. The minister dodges the issue by counting in her bed figures aged care beds which have been allocated but are not built or operating. These are the phantom beds. They exist only in the imagination of Minister Bishop. Just to further illustrate the point, in the 1999 round Minister Bishop allocated 140 beds to an aged care provider in the Mornington Peninsula. Two years down the track the provider has yet to commence building this facility, so for two years there are 140 beds sitting idle, yet I have 60 brand-new beds in Cabrini without licences waiting for people. What sort of crazy system do we have where 140 bed licences are handed out for beds not even built whilst we have 60 brand-new beds at Cabrini that lie empty?

Not only has the government failed to provide any extra bed in this budget, hence putting pressure on the public health system, it has failed to provide any funds for public hospitals. All members in this chamber will be aware that our public hospitals are suffering under enormous strain. I do note that the budget includes a pale imitation of Labor's medical after-hours policy. The government has also come to its senses and done a backflip on its earlier decision to include higher prices for essential items like syringes and glucose tests for diabetics. Unfortunately, people suffering from high cholesterol have no such reprieve and will have to endure high costs for cholesterol-reducing medicines. Kim Beazley's budget reply provided a stark contrast with the cynical and misplaced priorities of the government.

So Labor's responsible approach to undoing the damage caused by this uncaring government is there for all to see. We have announced over 70 policies and the voters have a genuine choice in the upcoming federal election between the substantial ALP policies and the flimsy coalition bribes on offer.