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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 11991

Ms REA (11:00 AM) —I rise to add my voice of support to this suite of legislation before the parliament today. Through the funds established under the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008, the Nation-building Funds (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008, the government is honouring its very strong commitments both throughout the election campaign and indeed over its first 12 months in office to invest in critical infrastructure within this country—not just physical infrastructure but also those very important areas of health and education. What is significant is that not only do we see those commitments being honoured through the establishment of these funds; this legislation effectively demonstrates that we are looking at a whole new way of doing business. This is about building significant partnerships with state governments, local governments, the private sector and the community to deliver very much needed infrastructure and to invest in those areas of community and social service that are most important in our country.

These measures have been put forward at a time when it is most critical. Whilst the government always had a commitment to ending the blame game, building partnerships with state governments and honouring that special place that local government holds within this country, the government not only is investing in health and education but is bringing forward spending—in fact, increasing spending—when the economy and therefore, most importantly, Australian households and families most need to be buffered against what is possibly the most significant global financial crisis that any of us have ever seen. So I am really proud to support this legislation because it does both of those things. I am particularly proud that the government puts particular emphasis on the funding of infrastructure through the Building Australia Fund, the funding of education through the Education Investment Fund and the funding of health through the Health and Hospitals Fund. All of this brings together through the COAG Reform Fund a new way of doing business with the states that brings to an end the blame game. It is not about passing the buck or pointing the finger; it is about investing where it is needed. Of course, as we know, the real winners out of this legislation will be the Australian people. No longer will they be part of the buck passing and the political football that gets played between different levels of government; this time they will actually be the beneficiaries of investment as a result of the partnership of those levels of government.

It is also important, as I said, that we recognise this legislative package in the context of the financial situation that we are in at the moment. We must understand that it is important to bring forward spending to invest in the infrastructure that enables business to continue to prosper and grow. It is very important that we invest in the long-term education of our workforce and our children. By providing critical services and increasing spending on health and hospitals, not only do we provide much needed services to the Australian community but we provide the jobs and investment that, hopefully, will buffer us and place us in a much better position than many of our Western counterparts at this critical time.

I am also pleased that we have seen a commitment, as a result of COAG reforms and the nation-building funds, to local government. My past experience, prior to coming into this House, was as a member of the Brisbane City Council for the best part of 13 years. I was most proud to attend the local government summit called by the Prime Minister and Minister Albanese last week here in Canberra. I do not think anyone who has not been involved in local government appreciates how significant that meeting was. For the first time, local government was around the table. For the first time, in a significant gesture, there were 585 mayors of local shires and cities across the country sitting down in the same room as almost the whole federal cabinet, and we were talking about the issues that matter to both levels of government. We were not pointing fingers; we were not blaming. We were actually talking about how the funds invested by the federal government can best get to those communities that need them and how all levels of government can work together to ensure that those funds are invested, not just for the short-term but for the long term as well.

Of course, what I was most encouraged to see was that this legislation actually came almost to fruition. We put our money where our mouth is on the weekend with that historical COAG meeting, where the Prime Minister, the cabinet and the premiers of the various states joined together to agree to some $15.1 billion of investment across this country not only to invest in critical infrastructure but also to ensure that the money is spent where it needs to be spent, such as in those critical areas of health and education.

More importantly, this money will help create 133,000 jobs across this country at a time when there is the spectre of increased unemployment, when there is the spectre of a downturn in the economy and when there is the very real situation of a global financial crisis. We are seeing our government, across the country, working in partnership with state governments to assist in the creation of some 133,000 jobs. As I have already said, it is not just creating jobs willy-nilly; it is creating jobs and investment in those areas that matter the most. Through the national partnerships that were established on that weekend, we see $1.1 billion to train more doctors, nurses and other health professionals. I cannot think of any other industry or area of employment where we have such a desperate shortage of trained professionals, and here we see $1.1 billion invested, with $500 million as a one-off contribution to deal with acute beds for over 31,000 patients. We all know that, as a result of the lack of doctors, nurses and health professionals, there is a lack of opportunity for people in all of our local areas.

I know that there is, particularly in my electorate of Bonner, a significant shortage of doctors, which affects medical centres and weekend access. That has placed incredible pressure on the emergency services of our public hospitals. It means that people on the weekend have nowhere else to go but to their local hospital, which places added pressure and strain on those already overworked facilities. Here we will have more doctors and nurses not just within our hospitals but also hopefully working within our suburbs and local communities to provide that after-hours service. We all know that kids do not get ear infections between 9 am and 5 pm, Monday to Friday; they get them at all hours of the day and night, and we need the support there in our local suburbs to get professional help.

There will be $448 million to deliver preventative health measures, including reward payments to the states for meeting specified outcomes. Yet again, this is a significant step in the reform of the COAG relationship. It is a real partnership, not just an opportunity to announce funding and blame the states if it does not happen. We have set up a partnership where the money goes to the states but the states have clear outcomes and clear criteria as to how the money must be spent. They have to meet benchmarks in order to justify the funding. This is a real partnership, one that the states are prepared to sign up to, because we know that together, with the opportunities and the funding given by the federal government, those outcomes can be achieved and we can deliver to the Australian community.

One of the most significant things that happened on that weekend—again as a part of the investment out of the nation-building funds, the education reforms and the reform of COAG—was the significant commitment to education that we saw once again coming out of the Rudd government, in partnership with the states: $42.4 billion for a national education agreement. That $42.4 billion will fund a significant number of reforms and initiatives which I look forward to and fully support, but to me at the moment it is the $557 million for government primary schools that I feel most proud of. We know that, for too long, primary schools, for one reason or another, have been seen as the poor cousins of secondary schools.

We all know that a child’s primary school education is now seen as probably as significant as, if not more significant than, the education they get in secondary school. If you do not get children engaged in the learning process in year 1, then you will never get them by year 10. If you do not have the resources, the staff and the support for those kids through the middle years—years 3, 4 and 5—they will not be prepared for high school. And, if they enter high school behind the eight ball, it is simply too hard to catch up. For the first time we see equal funding going to primary schools. I know, having travelled around the primary schools in my electorate, how welcome that funding and that recognition of the importance of primary schools will be.

Not only is this legislation important because it establishes funds that invest in the areas where we need investment; it is important because it acknowledges that the way we deal with the global financial crisis is to boost our economy to continue to see it grow and to ensure investment in critical areas. Not only do we see it as important that we invest in our workforce and address the skills shortage that has been ignored for too long in this country; we see a whole new way of ensuring that all of that funding and that investment actually goes to the people who most need it, and that is the Australian households and families out there who are trying to make ends meet.

It is because of the relationship that this legislation establishes between all levels of government that it is so significant. I look forward to seeing the results of that across the country, but in particular in my own electorate of Bonner. I look forward to working with the minister and state members to see development of the Port of Brisbane, to encourage that incredibly fast-growing area of employment and industry within the suburbs of Bonner. It is a critical piece of infrastructure for the economy of Brisbane and indeed the whole country—it is our second-fastest growing port. I look forward to seeing infrastructure investment there in the future.

This is a far cry from the lack of investment that we have seen in the past. I think it is a real shame that, over the last three years, the only real infrastructure that the electorate of Bonner saw was the opening of a Medicare office. That was something I supported. Unfortunately it was opened by the previous government. In a previous term they had actually closed that Medicare office but they did have the foresight to reopen it. But with this legislation bringing in these funds, the relationship with the states and the partnerships with local governments, we will see a lot more than just the reopening of an essential service; we will actually see this country, this economy and our communities grow.