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Thursday, 25 June 2009
Page: 4383

Senator BIRMINGHAM (6:09 PM) —I recognise the lateness of the hour today and that there is still other business for the Senate to conduct, so I will attempt to keep my remarks as brief as possible—I hope that my comments on brevity are not similar to those of colleagues who have gone before me! Nonetheless, it is a pleasure to speak on the appropriations bills, but it is a great disappointment to speak at such a late hour on the very last day of these sittings. The appropriations bills are important bills for this parliament to consider appropriately, thoroughly and diligently. They are the one opportunity, in particular, for this chamber to have a relatively free-ranging debate on the budget that has been just been handed down by this government. Regrettably, because of the mismanagement of this chamber by the government, we will in fact see barely any debate at all occur on these appropriations bills and the budget that the government has handed down. That is a grave disappointment to me. It should be a grave disappointment to all senators and, particularly, to the Australian public that this opportunity has been missed. It has been missed because, of course, rather than dealing with the 2009-10 budget in a timely manner, the government had to spend most of the week trying to talk about a program that they are seeking to introduce sometime in 2012. They did that rather than getting on with the business in an orderly manner and dealing with the priorities, the top priority being this budget—this budget debacle, of course—that they have handed down.

The opposition are, of course, supporting these bills, because we recognise the importance of them passing in a timely manner. That is why they will go through tonight despite the fact that we will not have the type of debate on the budget that the parliament and the Australian public deserve. However, I do have a number of concerns. As the youngest member of this chamber aside from Senator Hanson-Young, I have some concerns in particular about the fact that, whilst this budget whacks many Australians left, right and centre, it whacks younger people in particular. It whacks them in a number of ways.

Senator Mason —Mmm.

Senator BIRMINGHAM —Senator Mason is nodding. He, of course, is well aware of the hit in direct ways, such as the changes to the youth allowance and the devastating impact that will have on rural and regional Australians and younger people in those areas who seek to go and study further in higher education pursuits, and the disadvantage they will have in attempting to do so. In many ways, of course, it whacks future students, because it is claimed now that the education revolution we are having is in fact a ‘bricks and mortar’ revolution. So, rather than the government delivering on its promises of an education revolution—which would be a revolution in teacher standards, curriculum and class sizes and would be a revolution that delivered real teaching outcomes—we instead have a wasteful ‘bricks and mortar’ revolution occurring forcefully at every school around the country, building buildings that some of them do not necessarily want; they would rather have something else instead. But, no, they are being told, in the Stalinist sort of approach of the government, ‘This is what you will have.’

It hits younger Australians in the healthcare sector. Yes, there will be some short-term effects from the government’s decision to slash private health insurance and private health insurance rebates, but it will be younger Australians who feel it in the longer term as well, because what we will see from the escalating prices of private health insurance, which will increase over time, will be the steady decline of membership of private health insurance, and from that we will see a rapid escalation of prices. So younger Australians, because of those higher prices, will put off membership of private health cover when they do need it, when they start a family. When they do need it, later in life, they will find it is all too expensive and out of reach by then.

Of course, this stands as one of the great broken promises of the government from this budget. It was Ms Roxon, now the Minister for Health and Ageing and then the shadow minister, who made it crystal clear in a press release on 26 September 2007:

… Federal Labor has made it crystal clear—

they were her words—

that we are committed to retaining all of the existing Private Health Insurance rebates …

All of the existing private health insurance rebates! Guess what? She went on to say:

The Liberals continue to try to scare people into thinking Labor will take away the rebates.

This is absolutely untrue.

I am sorry, but our scare campaign on Labor planning to take away private health insurance rebates was not absolutely untrue. In fact, it was absolutely true. Like with so many broken promises from the government, what the Liberal Party said before the last election about what Labor would do turned out to be true. Reminiscent of Peter Garrett’s famous words, ‘Once we get in we’ll just change it all,’ what they said at the election just did not matter.

On general aged-care, superannuation, retirement and standard-of-living issues, again we see many people hit and dudded in this budget, but it is younger Australians in particular who will pay the price. In the debate on the previous bill considered by this place we considered the raising of the pension age and the impact that would have. There are some merits to the argument for doing so in terms of dealing with intergenerational shift in Australia. I accept that there are some good arguments as to why we should look at the types of reforms to the age pension age that have been implemented. That is why the opposition was supportive of that legislation.

However, good points were made by Senator Xenophon and other speakers that the national discussion about the need for the increase to the age pension age was not had. There was nothing at all. The government did not go to the last election suggesting there might need to be a change to the age pension age. They did not in their first budget last year suggest there might need to be a change to the age pension age or to the tapering rates which they have changed, which will have a particularly negative impact on part-pensioners. Nope, they did not do any of those sorts of things. They simply introduced it, snuck it into this year’s budget, hoped that nobody would notice and managed to get it through, without the public debate and discussion that these matters deserve.

You would think that, as a government, if you were going to make the age pension a little less accessible for future generations, maybe you would encourage superannuation more and maybe you would make super easier so that fewer people were reliant on the age pension in future. But, oh, no, not this government—it went and decided that it would change the superannuation taxes along the way. In this year’s budget the government reduced the incentives and made it harder for people to put money into superannuation. Guess what? That is another broken promise of the government.

Back on 12 November 2007, very close to the election date, the Prime Minister said, ‘There will be no change to the superannuation laws one jot, one tittle.’ I think you can safely say the changes that have been made represent at least one jot, at least one tittle, by this government, whatever a ‘tittle’ may be. I am sure a tittle is represented quite well in the government’s approach to things. If you took the Prime Minister at his word at the time and then looked at what the government has done in its budget this time around, you would be quite tempted to say, ‘Fair shake of the sauce bottle, mate.’ Surely Mr Rudd should have been taken at his word when he said there would be no change to the superannuation laws, not ‘one jot, one tittle’. But, no, future Australians will find the age pension less accessible, and superannuation will be an equally harder road for them.

The government decided that they would go on the attack over these matters today. In question time today the Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Ms Macklin, stood up in the other chamber and quoted from my recent budget newsletter that went out to thousands of households across the western suburbs of Adelaide. She decided to attack me for saying:

… the Labor Government has once again shown its mean and tricky colours by raising the retirement age …

I stand wholeheartedly by that comment in the newsletter. Whatever Ms Macklin might wish to say in the House of Representatives about the fact that the opposition allowed the legislation to go through today on the age pension rise, it makes no difference to the fact that the government’s approach on this matter was mean and tricky. It was mean and tricky because there was no consultation, discussion or dialogue. Future generations of Australians, with absolutely no input into this decision and no opportunity to comment, will find themselves paying the price for it.

There are many other ways in which this government and this budget let down Australians of all ages and, especially, future generations of Australians. The most important area, which I will finish on, relates to Labor’s debt. Future generations of Australian taxpayers will have to pay this debt off. Dollar by dollar they will have to pay it off. First of all they will suffer just by having to service the debt. Future taxpayers, although it starts with today’s taxpayers, will fork out billions of dollars each year in their taxes just to service Labor’s current debt. Those billions of dollars will mean less money for health care, schools, the environment and water, which is another area tragically overlooked in this budget. There will be less money in each and every budget of Australian governments of the future thanks to the profligate spending of the Rudd government in this budget.

We have seen the charade of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer when asked about those debt levels—ducking, dodging, weaving and doing the best they possibly can to avoid admitting what those debt levels may be. The budget papers make it clear that we are headed towards a $188 billion debt over the forward estimates. After much ducking, dodging and weaving the Prime Minister invented the term ‘peak debt’, which is allegedly $315 billion. That figure assumes the government lives up to its promise of having only a two per cent growth rate in spending, but after just 18 months of this government we know that that is an impossible promise for it to keep. The idea that peak debt will be $315 billion while this Prime Minister, Treasurer and government remain in charge of the Treasury coffers is just laughable, and future generations will pay for it.

This is a tragic budget for Australia. It undoes so much of the good work that had been done over the previous decade. It leaves a legacy for future generations that they will have to pay for. That is a sad day for Australia; it is unfortunate that the government has dug this hole and I regret deeply that younger Australians in particular will be paying the price for it for years and decades to come.