House of Representatives
3 June 2014
I rise to speak on the appropriation bills that are currently before the House. In total, these five bills seek parliamentary approval for around $1.3 billion in the 2013-14 year and $88.4 billion in the 2014-15 year for both the ordinary continuing operations of government as well as a number of new measures contained in the 2014-15 budget. It is this budget, the Abbott Liberal government's first budget, that I wish to speak to today because it is this budget that betrays the trust of the Australian people.
This is a budget built on broken promises and wrong priorities. This is a budget that exposes the Abbott government's systemic deceit—their false promises to the Australian people about reducing the cost of living, their false promises about the state of the budget and their false promises about returning the budget to surplus without imposing new taxes or new spending cuts beyond those they had already identified before the election. This is a budget that makes clear that what this government say before an election bears little, if any, resemblance to what they say and do after an election. Every day we see the Prime Minister on his bike pedalling as fast as he can to escape his pre-election promises and commitments. Does the Prime Minister honestly think that no-one will remember? It is not as though all those press conferences, billboards, signed pledges, glossy brochures and photo opportunities did not exist, and it is not as though there are not more than a few traces left behind to remind us all. Prime Minister, I can assure you that the people of Newcastle remember well what you said before the election and they, like the vast majority of Australians, have completely and comprehensively rejected this budget.
This is a budget that compounds inequality in our society, and Australians everywhere have denounced it. But it is not just Labor members of parliament making this point. As one senior Liberal MP put it, this budget is a stinking carcass around the government's neck. And while the Liberal Minister for Small Business is more polite in his observations that there are no clear winners in this budget I can assure the minister and the Abbott Liberal government that there are plenty of losers. There have been cuts to education, cuts to health, cuts to family payments, cuts to the ABC and SBS, and cuts to legal services, science, the arts, the environment, the Human Rights Commission, foreign aid, social services, Indigenous affairs—the list goes on and on. To make matters worse, the so-called justification for these savage cuts is a fictitious budget emergency concocted by this Prime Minister and his Treasurer to suit their own political purposes. No amount of spin, however, can hide the fact that these budget cuts are a complete betrayal of the Australian people, who put their trust in this Abbott Liberal government.
Let us be clear, this is a budget based on a long list of broken promises and commitments that this government made when seeking office. Who can forget the Prime Minister's words on the eve of the election when he was interviewed by SBS news? He said there would be no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, no changes to the GST, and no cuts to the ABC or SBS. This was the same Prime Minister who told the ABC in July last year:
The great thing about the Coalition is you know exactly what you will get from the Coalition.
Well, Prime Minister, this budget was certainly not the budget Australians thought they were getting or that they were told they were getting.
This budget is, however, unravelling before our very eyes, as an understandably very nervous government tries to sell the stinking carcass to the Australian people. Given the enormity of the task ahead you would think that the government would at least be across the detail of what they were trying to sell, but as we have seen over the last two weeks that could not be further from the case—with the Prime Minister, the Treasurer and the ministry in complete disarray over their own budget measures.
Last week, we had the education minister floating the idea of collecting student debts from the dead as a way of boosting the budget bottom line. He said he had no ideological opposition to collecting debts from the estates of former students who died owing money to the government—a new death tax, the burden of which could be passed on to future generations. While the minister for education got the backing of the Treasurer, the Prime Minister moved swiftly to rule out any notion of collecting fees from dead students' estates, telling ABC radio that the existing arrangements regarding HECS debts would not be changed. What a shambles. The minister, Treasurer and Prime Minister are at complete loggerheads over their own budget measures.
And it does not get any better when it comes to health, where we have the Prime Minister and the Treasurer providing answers to questions on the new GP tax that directly contradict information in the budget papers. Who are we to believe? The Prime Minister, the Treasurer or the relevant minister? Can we even trust the budget papers—who knows? The question remains: if the Prime Minister and Treasurer do not understand the policies they are introducing, why should the Australian people have to pay for them?
Why should the Australian people have to pay a new tax every time they visit a doctor or are sent for x-rays or blood tests, when they already pay a Medicare levy through the tax system? This new tax on doctor visits hits everyone—pensioners, parents, unemployed, low-income earners, people with a disability and even veterans. For those who think they are not affected because their doctor does not bulk-bill, think again. Next time you go to get your Medicare rebate you will notice that it is $5 short because this government has cut the fees they pay to the doctors.
Why should pensioners and carers be asked to take a hit and accept lower rates of indexation when the government increases the pension age to 70, cuts the seniors supplement and rips up the national partnerships that deliver concessions to pensioners and seniors across Australia, while this government insists on paying millionaires $50,000 to have a baby? Why should Australians accept this government's refusal to invest in education? We know that education is what shapes the future of our children and our nation, but this government is ripping out $20 million from our local schools, putting an end to the Gonski reforms and abandoning needs based funding. Along with cuts to trades training, huge increases to university fees and ever-spiralling HECS debts for students, this government is attacking education on all fronts, despite promising before the election that they were on a so-called unity ticket with Labor. Before the election, Tony Abbott promised no cuts to education; after the election it is a very different story—another broken promise from this deceitful government.
Let us take a look at some of the perhaps lesser known but no less nasty cuts contained within this budget. A close reading of this budget confirms that the government have no plan for Australian jobs and, just as shocking, they fail dismally to understand the needs of regional Australia. We have seen job cut after job cut in Newcastle since this government was elected, with hundreds more in danger. Yet we have seen no action or plan on jobs from this Abbott Liberal government.
To make matters worse, if you are under 30 and are one of the unlucky ones to lose your job, this budget makes it clear you are on your own. There are the cuts to apprenticeship and job seeker support programs, the abolition of career advice and mentoring schemes, the cuts to Youth Connections and the cuts to tools of the trade grants. Massive changes to Newstart and the freezing of payments in six-month intervals while you are trying to find work are especially cruel. These programs help people keep and find work, and support job seekers in transition, yet this government is abandoning them at their time of greatest need.
The social and health impacts of these cuts are profound and tear at the social fabric of our community. Professor John Mendoza of the University of Sydney and the University of the Sunshine Coast notes that this budget is particularly cruel for younger Australians and is concerned about the ongoing effects. He said:
… younger Australians are been actively excluded by Government. It is discriminatory, divisive and dangerous. The changes to Newstart allowance in particular are the most egregious and dangerous proposals. The links between mental illness, suicide and under-employment and unemployment are well documented and known.
Removing this very basic safety net provided by Newstart will put more unemployed people at even greater risk—possibly unprecedented.
This is a shameful legacy for the government to leave for our young Australians.
In Newcastle we have benefited in the past from the decentralisation of federal government departments and agencies, creating local jobs and offering dedicated services to the community. We are proudly home to a major ATO facility and CSIRO's clean energy centre, a world leader in solar and thermal research. Indeed, I would like to put on the record my congratulations to the scientists in CSIRO in Newcastle who this week announced success in using solar energy to generate the hottest supercritical steam ever achieved outside of fossil fuel sources. Dr Wonhas said:
Instead of relying on burning fossil fuels to produce supercritical steam, this breakthrough demonstrates that the power plants of the future could instead be using the free, zero emission energy of the sun to achieve the same result.
The $9.7 billion research grant for this project was supported by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, ARENA, which this government has also cut. Only a government with no vision for the future would contemplate cutting science and scientific agencies like CSIRO and ARENA.
This budget contains no joy for our shipbuilders at Forgacs, where 900 highly skilled men and women continue to face an uncertain future with a lack of government commitment to major Defence shipbuilding contracts. The work is there—successive Defence white papers have identified the need—but this government continues to sit on its hands.
This Prime Minister also went to the election on a platform of no cuts to the ABC or SBS, yet in his first budget he has stripped $232 million from the ABC and $8 million from SBS. In Senate estimates last week ABC Managing Director Mark Scott confirmed that these cuts will result in job losses and a reduction in news services. In regional areas like my own electorate of Newcastle, the ABC is more than a news provider and a kids TV station; it is an integral part of our community. In times of disaster and emergency, like the bushfires experienced in our region in October last year, the ABC dropped everything to support our community. Cuts to the ABC in Newcastle are direct cuts to our community. Mr Scott also said in Senate estimates that local radio was the spine of what the ABC delivers but was uncommitted on its future in the wake of the announced funding cuts. He said:
I just hope that our budget envelope is one that allows us to continue to be able to invest in the renewal of local radio. It is the lifeblood of what we do.
On emergency broadcasting, he said:
… we look to be responsible stewards as emergency broadcasters. We take the role very seriously. I think in any circumstances we would look to deliver the best possible service that we can. But it is expensive and we continue to try to prioritise funding for it.
The ABC are trying to do their best for regional Australia, but this government is undermining their efforts.
This government has also removed a key voice for people with disability through the abolition of the dedicated Disability Discrimination Commissioner role from the Australian Human Rights Commission. Earmarked as a cost-saving measure to repair the budget, the cutting of the role currently held by Mr Graeme Innes AM, who is legally blind, is ill-considered and illogical. Five members of the Human Rights Commission have expressed their disagreement with the decision. As confirmed last week in Senate estimates, nearly 40 per cent of the Human Rights Commission's caseload is from the disability area—nearly double the next highest caseload. It deserves to have a dedicated commissioner. I echo the call of my colleagues and Mr Innes: Prime Minister, do not abandon this important voice for people suffering from discrimination.
Let us take a look at the government's $16 billion cut to overseas aid, another broken promise that will hurt the world's poor. Sixteen billion dollars in overseas aid can make a world of difference to some of the poorest countries and people on earth. For example, it could teach 53 million people to read and write, provide 3.2 billion lifesaving malaria treatments, deliver antiretroviral treatments to 20 million people with HIV-AIDS or train 6.4 million new midwives in developing countries. Australia is a rich and prosperous nation and it is our responsibility to support those in need. In a year when we are chairing the G20, we should be setting an example to the rest of the world about how to look after others less fortunate. Instead, we are tearing up our commitment and abandoning those who need our help the most. Again, it is not just Labor highlighting the unjust aspects of this government. In response to the budget cuts to foreign aid, Helen Szoke, Chief Executive of Oxfam, said:
Unless countries like Australia invest more in humanitarian assistance and efforts to reduce disaster risk we are going to see more people go without life-saving assistance—
Australia needs to be part of the solution, not backing away from its responsibility.
Budgets are about choices, and while the Prime Minister likes to talk about making tough decisions and tough choices, the Australian people have every right to question his priorities. Just how tough was it to produce a budget that makes the lower income earners do all the heavy lifting while high earners are left with barely any change or are indeed better off. Just how tough was it to cut health, education and pensions while giving $50,000 to already wealthy people to have a baby? These are not the values or priorities of the Australian people. This is a budget that divides Australia and entrenches inequality. That is why Labor will be fighting this budget and making the case for a better future, a more equitable future. Australia can and must do better.