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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 107

Senator DENMAN (8:36 PM) —Prior to the recent election I decided I would not recontest my seat; consequently, my time in this place is relatively short. Before I contribute to the address-in-reply debate, I want to support Senator Forshaw in his call for the Howard government to support the victims of asbestosis. I had two traumatic days last week in my electorate chatting to someone I had grown up with who is now a victim of asbestosis, and I can assure you all that it is a most horrific disease.

As has been the case throughout my term in office, I am determined that the time left to me will be meaningful. I want to continue to make a difference and to raise issues, particularly on behalf of those of my constituents who do not have another voice. Whilst I have been here it has been my resolve to ensure that the disadvantaged, the isolated and the lonely are heard and represented. My constant attention has always been given to how they will be affected by the policies and legislation proposed by the government of the day. It is very much with this in mind that I listened to His Excellency's speech at the opening of parliament.

Not every Australian is successful financially, not every Australian is aspirational in character and not every Australian is in a position to be so. Whilst I am hopeful that the government is sincere in its resolve to govern for all Australians, I regrettably am not convinced that this is so. Sadly, what was emphasised by the government to the Australian people during the election campaign was vastly different to the rhetoric that has been used since. In fact, I could hardly believe my ears on election night when senators opposite could hardly contain their enthusiasm, for example, at the possibility that Telstra could now be fully privatised. It hardy rated a mention during the campaign. It is far from being the only issue that falls into this category.

His Excellency's speech made reference to the government's intention to take early steps to implement the policy commitments it made during the election campaign. It should ensure that this is the case. The current government has created enormous expectations amongst the Australian people. Mortgage commitments and household credit card debt levels have never been higher. Many Australians are teetering on the edge. Government must be conscious that every decision it takes, unless fully considered, could force those people over the edge. Many Australians who are on the brink have placed their faith in this government. It is not a constituency with which this government is traditionally familiar. It has an enormous obligation to remember them. But the speed with which those opposite have turned their attention to privatisation, media ownership laws and the like reveals their true commitment and affiliation, which is clearly to others.

Already the government is showing a substantial movement away from the agenda it emphasised to the Australian people during the election campaign. The impact of this will be most greatly felt after 1 July next year, when those on the government benches will have a majority in this place. It will be vital, in order to ensure that the Senate continues to protect the interests of all Australians, that those opposite with a true social conscience act with fearless resolve in their party rooms and where necessary also in this place. This chamber has served as a responsible fetter on the unbridled obsessions of those in the executive who would seek to impose their dogma on the Australian people. I sincerely hope that the mechanisms which have provided these checks and balances will remain in place.

The proposed full privatisation of Telstra is a frightening prospect for those of us who live in rural and regional Australia. Two things in particular continue to concern me as a representative of the people of Tasmania. The first is the continuing emphasis in statements by Telstra spokespeople that the further sale will not occur unless and until the climate is right as far as the shareholders are concerned. To me this is the very reason why we should not be contemplating the sale of one of the most valuable assets held on behalf of all Australians. Access by us all to state-of-the-art, working and reliable telecommunications in the 21st century is a right, not a privilege. We cannot afford to have this right determined by a board whose obligation is solely to the shareholders. It is a furphy to claim that the privatisation will empower the `mum and dad' shareholders. It will in fact transfer control of critical infrastructure from all of us to big corporations that are interested more in dividends than service delivery.

My second concern arose from the extraordinary suggestion by the National Party that a significant proportion of the proceeds of the sale of Telstra should be allocated to telecommunications infrastructure in regional Australia. If there is a need for such expenditure, and I do not question for a moment that there is, then that emphasises the very reason why we should not be contemplating the further sale. It is this obsession with something other than providing services to the people of Australia that creates the divide between those on this side and those opposite. I cannot accept for a moment that the interests of those who live alone or who live in isolated communities are best served by taking control of the delivery of telecommunications services out of the hands of the Australian people. Looking after their interests will be of little concern to those who put profit and returns to shareholders above everything else.

We are about government in the interests of all Australians. I fear that many of those opposite have a different agenda. One prime example of the intention of the government is the manic pursuit of its own beliefs to end the provision of services to tertiary students in Australia. Like the sale of Telstra, the abolition of student union fees at our universities hardly rated a mention during the election campaign. But now, with the prospect of control of both houses of parliament, it is prominent on the agenda.

Student union fees are about providing essential services to Australian university students. They are not, as the government would seem to have it, about providing a slush fund for political activities. The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee was absolutely correct in reiterating its support for student fees. The provision of welfare, housing, cultural and sporting services to students is now, quite appropriately, essentially the responsibility of the student bodies themselves. These are funded through compulsory student fees which universities remain happy to collect because they know the importance of these services. The vice-chancellors know that these services would be impossible to provide in the absence of student fees. Again, this is a prime example of where the government puts its own way-out philosophy ahead of providing services to Australians even when it does not require an outlay from government coffers.

I would like to spend some time on the government's other plans for education. I am particularly interested in the government's new-found interest in technical and skills training. The establishment of the proposed 24 Australian technical colleges catering for years 11 and 12 students is one of the most bizarre initiatives I have witnessed in my long experience in education and public life. Perhaps the fact that only one of those colleges is proposed for Tasmania emphasises the point that I would like to make. Tasmania has an excellent and well-established system for educating students in years 11 and 12. In addition, we have a fine TAFE system which delivers programs of excellence.

If funding is available from the Commonwealth, the best way to deliver further opportunities for technical education and skills training in Tasmania and, I suspect, elsewhere is by the provision of that funding to the existing institutions. To waste valuable funding on the creation of separate administrative structures and facilities is a clear example of political philosophy out of control. The provision of additional investment in a system that is working at state level would be welcome, but to attempt to duplicate it is quite ridiculous. It seems quite possible that an investment of $12 million per proposed college over four years would make a difference if it were directed to existing institutions. It seems impossible to imagine that it is possible to build colleges and run effective programs for the same investment. We can only hope in this case that the pork barrel, having had its desired effect, will be revisited and more effectively directed.

At the other end of the spectrum, I am concerned at the government's priority for older Australians. The Howard government's recent adoption of the mature age worker philosophy is, in my view, a dangerous path for this country to pursue. We should explore exactly what is behind this concept, including the introduction of the mature age worker tax offset. On the surface it is said that it is to provide enhanced opportunities and greater choice for mature age workers or to reward and encourage those who choose to stay in the work force. But, in my view, it is essentially another program to redirect income to the haves with scant regard to the have-nots. And, equally significantly, it seems that it is proposed without any regard for the consequent effects on society.

The mature age worker tax offset does nothing to assist those mature age workers of current working age who have no work. At best, it assists those with a job to remain in the work force for longer. But it does so without any consideration of whether it is in their best interests to do so. I cannot help but draw the conclusion that the reason for the policy is solely to reduce the numbers of Australians seeking the age pension. In my view, the social cost for individual mature age workers, their families and Australia in general will far outweigh any benefits that these programs will bring. Retirement should be something to which Australians can look forward. It should not be something of which they are ashamed.

There are many ways in which older Australians can contribute to society whilst enjoying the retirement they have earned—through grandparenting, volunteering and mentoring to give a few examples. But they should be able to make those contributions whilst enjoying good health and a dignified lifestyle. The concept that Australians should be encouraged or, in time no doubt, expected to work until they drop is ill-founded and misplaced. Certainly, there will be some Australians, particularly those with their own businesses or more sedentary occupations, who will be happy to work beyond retiring age. They should not be disadvantaged in any way, should they determine to do so. But it must be their choice. It must not be an expectation, nor should there be any penalty for those who choose otherwise.

This is dangerous turf. The prospect of this government having unfettered power and taking this philosophy further ought to be of grave concern to all Australians. After all, this grand plan had not rated a mention just 12 months ago. What could emerge over the next three years could permanently change for the worse Australian society and the lives of our older citizens. The possibilities are quite chilling.

I note also the government's intention to reform Australia's media ownership laws. In Tasmania, unlike Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane, we enjoy the choice offered and the competition provided by three daily newspapers. It creates a healthy environment in the print media, a variety of avenues through which issues may be discussed and Tasmanians may express their opinions. By contrast, we have seen aggregation and delocalisation of our traditional radio services. Whilst at the same time we have seen an expansion of community radio, we now have less choice. As a result, we have only one station, the ABC, offering any form of community talkback, and then only for an hour or so each day. When combined with the removal of virtually all local current affairs coverage, apart from the daily news bulletins, from our television airwaves, the picture painted is quite a dismal one.

Whilst we have been spared the nationalisation of our commercial television stations, the impact of the big stations has been felt with the conditions imposed on the provision of programming rendering local content production unviable. In a state like Tasmania—and I am sure this applies to all other regional areas in Australia—where a sense of community is highly valued, the independence and localised nature of media is of critical importance. Any tampering with the current system must ensure that this remains the case.

I want to turn finally to something which was not mentioned in His Excellency's address—the provision to all Australians of dental health services. The Constitution of this great nation makes the Commonwealth responsible for dental services. This government continues to ignore this obligation. In the growing economy which this country enjoys, and to which the government so often refers, the dental health of Australians should be a right, not a privilege. Older Australians should not have to wait years for dentures or for treatment to ensure that they retain their own teeth throughout their lives. The capacity of young Australians to gain a job in a sales or marketing area should not be dependent on whether their families have been able to access regular care for their teeth.

The tired old argument we have heard from the Howard government ministers and senators opposite is that dental services should be provided by the states. The basis for this argument is constitutionally untenable. This government simply cannot continue to avoid its responsibility in this regard. To do so shifts the responsibility to state governments, forcing them to take funds from services which they have an obligation to provide. Inability to access adequate dental services is a constant concern for my constituents, particularly those on low incomes. The impact on their capacity to retain or gain employment or to engage socially is significant. A government which is sincere in its claim that it wishes to govern in the interests of all Australians should at the minimum fulfil all of its constitutional obligations. This includes the provision of dental services.

The Howard government has earned a mandate from the Australian people. We on this side accept that that is the case. But as a responsible opposition we will not waver in ensuring that the government is held to account when it seeks to legislate outside the bounds of the matters which it has openly placed before the electorate. We will be equally vigilant in ensuring that the government fulfils its constitutional obligations towards all Australians. Where there is a better way for the government to implement its promises, we shall not be afraid to advance them. We are about to embark on an interesting journey with the Howard government at the wheel. We must ensure that the course is steered as promised and, more importantly, responsibly so in the best interests of all Australians.