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Tuesday, 19 June 2001
Page: 27991

Ms ELLIS (8:41 PM) —This budget is a budget for the past. It is a budget aimed at changing decisions of this government—decisions this government has now realised may not have been as well placed as it thought. This is not a budget about our future. This budget gives no clear view of where the government sees our community in the future. This budget gives no clear direction or leadership into the future. The only future this budget is aimed at is the future of this government and its re-election prospects.

Since coming to government in 1996, five very long years ago, the Prime Minister and his colleagues have implemented some dramatic changes which have affected every stratum of our community. A great deal of hurt has been felt with those changes, a great deal of upheaval. What has all this meant? A great divide now exists in our society, I believe. It goes beyond the haves and have-nots in a strictly financial sense, although that in itself is bad enough. Who can access legal services and who cannot? Who can access aged care services and who cannot? Who can access adequate health care and who cannot? Who can access a good education and who cannot? How can we guarantee the quality of these programs and the delivery of these services? This is where this government is leading us—down the great divide of equity, of fairness and of justice.

In the limited time available to me, I want to draw attention to some of that change, hurt and upheaval and to some of the situations that are creating that great social divide. I turn first to our older Australians. How cruel can it be when language used on budget night suggests one thing but actually suggests another the next day. The government can claim it was all in the print and no-one was misled. We recall very clearly another great example of this use of language, when the Prime Minister promised every older Australian a one-off $1,000 cash bonus—no fine print to read that time, just a blatant misuse of language, and the older Australians who contacted me made it very clear how they felt about that particular episode. The big mistake is the belief that you can act in this way again and get away with it. I believe that their memory out there is long and that they will not forget this. In this case, however, it is the fine print you need to read, because that is where we find out who really does gain and who does not. Time does not allow me to go through all of this in detail; suffice it to say that, whilst many in our community will receive some relief, many will not. If you are not in the right category, if you are not the right age, you will not receive $300 or possibly a Commonwealth seniors health card or possibly a telephone allowance. As for the changes to effective tax thresholds, you will read lots and lots of fine print to work out if and how that might assist you.

These people do not need misleading messages. They want to be treated honestly and openly. With the impact of the GST on them, they all—I repeat: all—could have done with some assistance. In the area of aged care facilities and places this budget is extremely disappointing. The aged care budget over the past three years was increased by between eight and 10 per cent. The government's future budgets show increases of just three to five per cent. The need for beds and care is not decreasing; it is increasing. We need to see at least indexed increases, if not higher increases, if we are even to hope to cope with the growing needs of our frail aged. In the ACT alone we have seen waiting times extend far beyond the acceptable. In 1997-98 just three per cent of persons assessed as needing a nursing home bed had to wait more than three months. By 2000 that number had increased to 21 per cent. This is intolerable. Governments have to do more than make budget night announcements about how good they are for older Australians. Obviously words are cheap.

I now want to talk about the area of disability. It is pretty divisive when you tell one sector of the community that they deserve $300 while at the same time ignoring another equally important group of people. My office receives a great many calls from people on disability support pensions who are finding it difficult to survive. They are having to deal with their disability and what life throws at them and are virtually being told that they do not deserve any additional assistance—the only conclusion that they could draw. For any of these people attempting to enter or re-enter the work force, the government announced the package A Better Deal for People with Disabilities; but of the funding only six per cent is available now, with nearly 90 per cent being held back until July 2002. However, not all of this $177 million package will go to helping these people get work, as $65 million of it will go to making the current medical assessment procedure for disability support pension applicants more rigorous. Consider that against the noises that for some months now have come from this government regarding people on DSP income—noises cloaked in the term `welfare reform'—and we are justified in questioning this government's motives in the welfare area, particularly that of reform.

I also want to talk briefly about legal aid. You could be led to believe that it is good news that this year's budget allows Commonwealth funding for legal aid to remain static. The true picture is that this is against a background of massive cuts in previous years. What was honestly needed was a reinvestment in legal aid to allow Australians who are unable to afford the cost of legal services to access our legal system equitably and fairly. In the last year of the previous Labor government, Commonwealth spending on legal aid was $160 million; in 2001-02 that figure will be $114 million, plus some $5 million not spent in previous years. That is $46 million less than was spent before this government came to power. In real terms, that means there will be $67 million less this year than there was in 1996. This withdrawal of funding is reflected in the inability of the Family Court to carry out its duties; in the decimation of the Family Court Counselling Service, particularly in regional and rural areas; in overworked and stressed officers who work in community legal centres and legal aid offices; and in the number of people and families being turned away due to lack of funding. This does not reflect a fair and equitable society; it reflects that great divide in our society.

In the brief time left to me, I would like to talk about indigenous health. We all would agree that one of our most important areas of concern is that of indigenous health. The committee report Health is life was tabled in June of last year in the House. The government response to this report was long in coming, and I was foolishly hopeful that a reason for that delay could have been this year's budget—in other words, that we would see some announcements in the budget reflecting the government's response to that report. How wrong I was. It is so disappointing to see this lack of response. The committee produced a report that we hoped would set a new direction for addressing these issues. There were 35 recommendations unanimously agreed to, looking at a broad range of issues and actions. Nine of the recommendations have been accepted; the rest have been agreed in principle, noted or, in one case, rejected. At least we have not had the minister accuse the committee of swanning around and not doing the hard yards—and I am thankful for that. A section of the recommendations referred to housing: the need to address the backlog, and the need to find ways of maintaining housing and other infrastructure improvements, possibly involving training.

I see in the budget that some $75 million over four years has been allocated for indigenous housing, which has been divided between the ATSIC Community Housing and Infrastructure Program and the Commonwealth-state housing agreements. But how disappointing to see that only $3 million of this additional funding will be available over the next 12 months. What hope do we have of addressing the backlog in the supply of appropriate housing with this sort of commitment? And this is just one example that I can briefly refer to. This issue is of enormous importance. Not only does it go to the very heart of practical reconciliation; it goes to simple justice and fairness. A great deal of time, work, money and heart on the part of the people who appeared before the committee went into that inquiry. The worst possible outcome is for the report and the government response to languish on a bookshelf somewhere. Those people who contributed do not deserve that, our indigenous community at large does not deserve that and I do not believe our country deserves that. This budget could have seen the beginning of a new approach; I deeply regret that that new approach is not evident.

The social divide to which I referred earlier is real. It affects many people in many ways. The government is there to govern for all Australians and to take into consideration their needs and aspirations. Reacting to polls by spending money at the rate that we have seen in the last few months on areas we were earlier told could not have been addressed is no way to govern this community. It is no way to compile a responsible budget. This budget is such a disappointment, and such a lost opportunity for so many in our community.