I rise to contribute to the debate regarding Treasurer Scott Morrison’s 2017 budget. I would like to take this moment to thank the Liberal government for its one-off funding commitment to the Mersey Community Hospital of about $730 million. Thank you for listening to the concerns of the Mersey community and to my concerns and those of the Labor Party regarding a lack of long-term vision for the hospital. I and my Tasmanian constituents still have concerns about what will happen in 10 years when the funding deal runs out and the Mersey Community Hospital is in the hands of the state government, who have proven, so far, to be incompetent when it comes to running the public health system in Tasmania. I strongly encourage health minister Greg Hunt to intervene in the state health minister’s management of the health system in Tasmania and protect the lives of Tasmanians. The state of the health system is at breaking point, and Tasmanians are needlessly suffering. Our nurses, doctors and paramedics are overworked, with many being asked to work three or more shifts in a row. In Tasmania, it is now normal for our medical staff to work double shifts because they are so under-resourced. This is an important matter to me, and I will not stop lobbying until the federal government intervenes.
I would also like to thank the federal government for listening to my call to fund Missiondale Recovery Centre in Tasmania. Missiondale has a high success rate and a proven track record of rehabilitating those with substance abuse issues, and it makes sense to grant them the funds instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. This funding will allow Missiondale to dedicate more funds and time to the work of rehabilitating people by resourcing beds that already exist.
While we are talking about rehabilitation, let me tell you about a centre that will go ahead in Tasmania soon. The Home of Hope is a rehabilitation centre for mums and bubs, a safe place where women with substance abuse issues can escape traumatic environments with their children. There is a proverb that says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ and the Home of Hope will be situated in the beautiful and caring community called the Meander Valley, a community that is happy to be a part of the healing process for these women and their children. But the Home of Hope has received no government funding because it was set up by religious organisation Teen Challenge. I admit my son did his rehab with Teen Challenge in Queensland. But—when statistics state Teen Challenge has a success rate of 86 per cent, with over a thousand centres in a hundred different countries, which makes the organisation one of the most effective in the world—I would hope that the Liberal government will consider granting ongoing funds to the Home of Hope in the next budget, as a way to help these women escape domestic violence situations and rehabilitate substance abuse issues. This will be the first mums-and-bubs rehab centre in this country, and I am very proud to be a part of that. In the meantime, I am the one out there raising the funds, and I have to raise about half a million dollars this year. I am going to be throwing in everything I can in the next six months. It would be nice for the government to consider putting some funding into these mums and bubs.
It was disappointing to see that the budget included around $70 billion in infrastructure spending over the next 10 years, yet there was no new infrastructure spending for Tasmania. I am sure you are aware that the Bridgewater Bridge near Hobart desperately needs to be replaced. At 70 years old, the bridge has suffered constant maintenance issues, including lifting span malfunctions. With a price tag of $535 million attached, it is costly infrastructure that the state government cannot fund on its own. It is a necessary project, with an average of 18½ thousand vehicles crossing it each day, according to the Tasmanian government.
The government’s budget does provide funding for a plan for the Snowy Mountains Scheme 2.0, but fails to provide any funding for a second Basslink cable, which would have been a good investment opportunity for the Tasmanian economy. New pumped hydrotechnology together with a second Basslink cable would have seen renewable energy investment in Tasmania, with opportunities to export more power to the mainland. That would have put Tasmania in a position to assist our cousins in South Australia during electricity shortages. Because Tasmania already has a baseload power in its Hydro, greater renewable investment would not affect the reliability of power in Tasmania but would increase the island state’s exporting capacity.
Greater export capacity is a double dividend for taxpayers, because further jobs would be created in Tasmania in the renewable energy industry while providing cheaper electricity to the mainland, giving Tasmania the opportunity to make more profits for its balance sheets and therefore be less reliant on government handouts. The Liberal government’s failure to fund a plan on a second Basslink cable shows that it is a government with horse blinker on and is incapable of broad energy planning for the future of Australians.
This budget fails to address bringing in an appropriate royalty regime in the natural gas industry. The petroleum resource rent tax, otherwise known as PRRT, is grossly inadequate because it is not delivering real economic paybacks for Australia to re-invest in infrastructure. Once these fossil fuels are depleted they are gone forever and our nation will have nothing to show for it because it failed to collect proper royalties. Some royalty regimes have been implemented at a state level; however, there has been a failure to consistently implement such at the federal level. This results in extraction of natural gas without Australia being reimbursed for its natural resource. By next year, the Reserve Bank estimates that liquefied natural gas—otherwise known as LNG—is likely to become Australia’s second largest commodity export in value terms. Because Asia is increasingly importing LNG for electricity production, this demonstrates that the Australian government should benefit from the extraction of our fossil fuel resources. The government’s 2017-18 budget fails in addressing these important energy issues, just as it fails to appropriately address the issue of housing affordability.
The government’s plan, outlined in the budget, to allow first home buyers to salary sacrifice their deposit savings into their superannuation and to unlock supply will not go far enough to help those who really need it. I have developed a housing affordability package that I believe will be a gentle approach and I would like to see it discussed in a mature and open-minded manner. My proposal includes a cap on the number of houses that can be negatively geared and the removal of the capital gains tax exemption on houses worth more than $2 million. I would also like to see foreign investment in the housing market reduced at a taper rate of 10 per cent per year for five years, until foreign investment in the housing market has been reduced by 50 per cent and then reassess the situation.
I would also allow access to superannuation for first home buyer deposits but would cap access at five per cent of the house price up to $500,000, with a requirement that the buyer matches at least 50 per cent of the super contribution. For example, if you want to buy a house valued at $500,000, the first home buyer would be able to access $25,000 from their super for their deposit but they would have to match it at 50 cents to the dollar and therefore would have to put $12,500 in. Lastly, boosting supply is a vital part of any housing affordability scheme and can be achieved by reviving a first home buyers grant for new homes and a first home builders grant to be funded by the states, as we have previously seen. This would get them close to a $40,000 to $50,000 deposit for their first home of up to $500,000.
While the media are reporting that this budget is a Labor budget, I can assure you that there are still signs of the Liberals in it. The higher education reforms proposed in this budget have the Liberals all over it, asking students to take on a greater burden. There are already so many barriers for students of disadvantaged families that a jump in fees and a requirement to pay the HECS debt back sooner will only deter students from this group from continuing their education.
University carries with it the promise of a better future and the potential to earn more. So, if a university graduate is earning $42,000 a year, I do not imagine that they are in a career where they can use their university degree—and that is a failure on the government’s behalf. It is a failure to stimulate the economy and create jobs for our university graduates. I imagine if my Liberal colleagues had ever been on a salary of $42,000 they would know that every dollar counts. Even a one per cent repayment places pressure on that person’s budget, especially if they have family.
I notice the budget also proposes to reduce funding for Catholic schools. When the legislation presents in the Senate I will be moving to exempt Catholic schools in rural and regional Australia, because it is those schools who are helping disadvantaged students and families. I am just going to explain that a little further. My children went through the public system until high school. Then, when they went to high school, I was able to put them into Catholic education, that being St Brendan-Shaw College in Devonport. I started to run into a lot of financial difficulties, and my children had the opportunity to stay there even though I could not pay the fees. They were able to do that because of the school funding they received. I know there are a lot of single mums and low-income families out there who want to give their kids the best possible chance in life. If that means that we can just scrape together a little bit more money to give them a better education and better discipline through the private system, then we will do that. But if you take that away from those people, you will make the divide even greater, because it will not give people like me, who are going through what I went through, the opportunity to give their kids a better start during their teenage years.
The removal of the deficit levy was also a sign of the Liberals’ involvement in this budget. While the richest Australians are getting a tax break, everyone else is getting a tax increase in the Medicare levy. While 0.5 per cent may not seem like much to my colleagues, once again, to a low-income earner, it is enough to break the bank. As I have mentioned already in this speech, a low-income earner has every cent accounted for, and a 0.5 per cent tax increase takes away their ability to pay for life’s basics. Going forward, I will be discussing with my colleagues how to increase the threshold for the Medicare levy to at least $40,000—and, quite frankly, I would make it a lot more—for a single person and reintroduce the deficit levy to make up for the gap in funding for the NDIS.
Of course, if anybody had had any idea what it would be like to pay for medical conditions and support, they should have looked at veterans’ affairs, because they underestimated the cost of the NDIS. It does not matter who did it, you underestimated it. You may have put the money away, but you short-changed yourselves. That is okay; these people are disadvantaged, and I am sure most Australians that can afford it will not mind paying a little bit extra. But, certainly, those who are not paying tax—the big boys up there, the boys at the big end of town—need to pay their fair share. It is time they did their heavy lifting.
By now, you have probably heard that I have asked for politicians to take random drug testing and alcohol testing. I admire the politicians who have stood up since then and said they would willingly take random drug tests. This is not a political stunt. I believe politicians must lead the way if they expect welfare recipients to be drug tested, as this year’s budget states. A trial for 5,000 welfare recipients to undertake random drug tests at Centrelink appointments is discrimination, which is unhelpful in overcoming substance abuse. Creating greater stigma around welfare recipients will not help rehabilitate people with substance abuse issues. As my mother always says, ‘What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.’ Politicians and public servants are also paid by the taxpayer and should be held to the same, if not a higher, standard as an unemployed person being paid by the taxpayer. The government must stop its discrimination against Australians on welfare and be willing to step up to the plate themselves. Politicians have an opportunity to set an example and send a clear message to welfare recipients, ‘We are in this together,’ which, at the very least, is a show of support. I did appreciate the government’s promise to rehabilitate any welfare recipient at the first positive test.
I was particularly pleased to see the government take up the cashless debit card for this group as well. It is not news for my colleagues that I would like to see it rolled out all across Tasmania as well. The substance abuse in regional Tasmania is one of the highest in the nation, and intergenerational welfare dependency is also higher in Tasmania. And because Tasmania is an island, it makes the perfect trial site. It is isolated. The cashless debit card will be the kick-start we need to break the welfare cycle. But I will not support it unless the government implements support services alongside it, otherwise there is no point implementing it. If there are not enough rehab centres and mental health services and programs or jobs, the cashless debit card may as well not be implemented. It will be a waste.
Education and industry need to be in lockstep to ensure Australia is producing graduates with relevant skills who have a job waiting for them at the end of their qualification. Twiggy Forrest has said Australia is one of the most educated unemployed countries in the world, and many qualifications are not translating into jobs. To make matters worse, the Job Services Australia system is costing the government $1.3 billion a year, yet the unemployment rate is not moving. If you read Twiggy Forrest’s Creating Parity, you will find only five per cent of employers use the Job Services Australia system to find workers. It does not meet employer needs and trains for the sake of training. The government claims the Job Services Australia system is outcomes based, yet only eight per cent of their funding is at risk if jobseekers do not hold a job for 26 weeks. On the other hand, Vocational Training and Employment Centres—VTEC—services put 100 per cent of their funding on the line if jobseekers cannot retain work for 26 weeks. It is this VTEC model which the government should be funding for all Australians. It connects jobseekers with guaranteed jobs and brings together the support services the jobseeker needs to remain employed in the long term.
The government’s budget provides funding for early access to rehabilitation for veterans. Doing such is good for veterans and their families. However, in the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Legislation Amendment (Defence Force) Bill 2016, otherwise known as DRCA, the government omitted the provision of minimising the duration and severity of injuries to employees by arranging quickly for the rehabilitation. When it comes to veterans’ rehabilitation, the government is inconsistent with what it is budgeting for and what it is offering veterans under veterans’ entitlements law. When DRCA comes up in the Senate, I will be moving an amendment to restore the provision of arranging quickly for rehabilitation so as to accord with what the government has actually budgeted for. The quick rehabilitation of our veterans, who have made enormous sacrifices to defend our freedoms, is the key to a successful recovery. Supporting veterans exposed to atomic bomb testing with a gold card in this budget has been 60 long years overdue—better late than never. But the government budget fails to provide funding for the children of those veterans exposed to radiation involved in the British nuclear testing and the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. Some of the children of these veterans have experienced serious health issues and have no support from the government. This is shameful and should be reconciled this year as a matter of priority.
The government’s continued commitment, in this budget, to funding pilot programs on suicide prevention is most welcome. The government needs to follow through with implementation of pilot programs, given its funding commitments. I note that last year the government made commitments for a rollout of a pilot program. It took seven-plus months for it to be instituted. In this regard, prior to making public announcements, the government should have a blueprint of any pilot program that is ready to go and should have its funding commitments guaranteed. Veterans do not need to be misled or experience broken or delayed promises.
I note this budget is void of any funding to support those who have experienced side effects with mefloquine and other antimalarial drugs. This important health issue is being addressed by our allies as we in Australia lag behind.
The modernisation of computers within DVA in this budget will be the key to streamlining veterans’ claims processes—we hope, anyway. I will be following DVA’s information and communications technology upgrades very closely to insure best possible outcomes for our veterans. Cutting over $170 million through changes to veterans’ healthcare arrangements in this budget may serve to negatively affect healthcare services to veterans. Thus far, the government has failed to adequately explain that cut. Nor has the government assured the veterans community that this budget measure will not disadvantage veterans in their healthcare needs.
There are a number of measures in this budget that I am pleased with but, before the Liberal government gives themselves a pat on the back, this budget is the bare minimum. Many of the measures are nothing but a change of mind—a reversal of cuts and a commitment to make no more cuts. It is the very least this government could do to support the Australian public. It is a budget that lacks vision and much-needed reform. I will not be smoking a cigar. Jobs and growth never took off. Exciting times were short and sweet. The 2017 budget is anything but fair. I think the opportunities for the LNP have taken a detour, and the only question still unanswered is: is the PM’s job secure?
Chamber Senate on 11/05/2017 Item BUDGET – Statement and Documents Speaker :Lambie, Sen Jacqui