Appropriation Bill No 1 2016-17: Liberal Spending

12 October 2016

 I rise today to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2016-2017 and cognate bills. While we are speaking about government spending, I would like to remind the government of the promises and the commitments they made to the people of Paterson, my electorate, during the election campaign. After Labor forced their hand, the Liberals promised $15 million towards raising the road at Testers Hollow, a road that floods repeatedly. In fact, it has been flooding for the last 90 years, which has cut off entire communities and, tragically, seen loss of life in recent years.

It was also promised to the people of Fern Bay and Fullerton Cove in my electorate that a new mobile phone tower would be built under the Mobile Black Spot Program, which we have now been told is fraught with pork-barrelling and great difficulty. I told the House yesterday how residents in Fern Bay, many over 55, are in the absurd situation that they are just 10 kilometres from Newcastle, the seventh largest city in Australia, and yet cannot get reliable mobile phone service. One lady even said that she stands on the sink in her home and puts the phone above the venetian blinds to try and get just one bar of service.

Also, the people of Kurri Kurri in my electorate were promised, by this government, $100,000 to upgrade their sports ground, the home of the mighty Bulldogs and many other important community events. That promise needs to be made good. The government also promised the people of Raymond Terrace and Nelson Bay $120,000 towards security surveillance and equipment under the Safer Communities Fund. Also promised, to Port Stephens residents, was $50,000 towards the Lakeside skate park. I can tell you the young people are very much wanting that and waiting on that to happen.

But, most importantly of all, the Liberal government made a number of promises to the people of Williamtown and surrounds, the communities that, through no fault of their own, have been caught up in the RAAF base contamination scandal—and that is exactly what this has become—whose land and water is poisoned, whose property values have plummeted, whose banks are circling and whose health is potentially compromised.

To these people in Williamtown and surrounds, the Liberals promised: voluntary blood testing; specialised mental health and counselling; a share in $55 million from the existing Defence budget to manage, contain and remediate PFAS at Defence bases; an epidemiological study that will look at potential patterns, causes and health effects in communities exposed to PFAS; dedicated community liaison officers; $3.5 million to connect Williamtown to town water—some of which is underway; to bring the issue of PFAS contamination to COAG so all governments have a consistent approach to managing potentially contaminated sites; and financial assistance for commercial fishers who were unable, until just recently, to work for more than 12 months because of contamination to our waterways—one of which is a Ramsar wetlands area. Meetings with financial institutions and valuers to address residents' concerns that they are being unfairly penalised, and there is no doubt that they are, were also promised.

They also promised: to establish nationally consistent acceptable levels of these chemicals in food, drinking water and recreational water; to establish guidelines to manage the environmental impact of PFAS; and to begin a dialogue with residents who just want to get out once the human health risk assessment is complete—and it was completed on 9 August—and once the review of the enHealth safe drinking guidelines was complete—which was completed on 9 September.

These dates have come and gone, and the dialogue has not begun. I have previously described the speed of Defence's response to Williamtown as 'glacial' and I take this opportunity to remind the Turnbull government that it has made these substantial and important promises to my community—it has made commitments to the Williamtown community and other communities in the Paterson electorate—upon which it must deliver.

I also rise to add my voice to the message that, while Labor will not block supply of the Appropriation Bill 2016-2017, we will work constructively on budget repair that is fair for all Australians and does not harshly affect the millions of hardworking Australians who put their faith in this government to look after their interests; the faith of the people in Paterson.

Labor won significant amendments to the government's harsh proposals, and I would like to reiterate some of these: Labor worked to deliver more savings than in the government's proposed legislation, Labor worked to protect the most vulnerable in our community and Labor worked to reinvest in Australia's clean energy future by saving ARENA, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Labor was also able to ensure affordable access to dental care for children, by protecting Child Dental Benefits Schedule. That is such an important scheme, with many health officials, and also experts around the world and in our country, saying that your health begins with your mouth. Looking after your teeth, and particularly the teeth of children, is something I believe is vitally important. I am proud of our work on that.

Labor's amendments delivered $6.3 billion in savings over four years, more than the government put forward in its original proposals. We promised all Australian people that we would fight to the end for budget repair that is fair for all Australians. We will not, and we never will, support cutting payments to some of the most vulnerable Australian people, people who need the safety net that has been provided in this country over many, many years, by Labor, for those who need it most.

We are pleased that, after hard-fought negotiations, the government saw the light and agreed to fairer ways to save money rather than targeting the poorest sections of our community. The compromise that Labor reached with the government is better, fairer and, quite frankly, more fiscally responsible. It meets the promises that we took to the election. It meets the need to be fiscally responsible but, also, to be true to our values of looking after those who need it most.

We are pleased that the government agreed with us to abolish the baby bonus. It was unacceptable of the government to lecture Australians about the need for spending cuts while indulging the National Party with a new baby bonus. The baby bonus had its time and place but we can no longer afford it, and I am sure that reasonable Australians really do understand that.

Once again, as we always do, Labor went into bat for pensioners, for single parents, for carers, for people with disabilities and for people who have lost their jobs from the coalition's harsh cuts made since 2014. And who will ever forget the Hockey-Abbott budget of 2014? It was truly devastating for so many people.

We saved ARENA by putting forward additional offsetting savings to keep most of their funding, so they can do their critical work. Nowhere is the work of ARENA more critical than in regions like mine, the Hunter region, where we must find a way forward. We must find a way to transition beyond coal to newer, cleaner, more renewable energies. Labor stands committed to a cleaner, greener future, and we will continue to talk with the coalition about how we do transition to a modern, clean and renewable energy approach.

Labor's amendments deliver more savings over four years than the government first proposed, and our measures are fairer. Fairness and fiscal responsibility—that is what Labor stands for. Better, stronger, fairer—that is who we are. We have ensured savings without threatening our gold-plated AAA credit rating, and we have ensured budget repair without hurting our most vulnerable.

But this government can go further—much further. This government could adopt Labor's plans in full, which would deliver more than $8 billion in budget improvements over the forward estimates, and more than $80 billion in budget improvements over the medium term.

Labor has a sensible and fair alternative to the coalition's superannuation package which will deliver $1.5 billion more to the budget. The government can easily resolve its superannuation shambles by working with Labor on a better, fairer proposal. This is what hardworking Australians who have done as governments have implored them to do and saved for their retirement want the government to do.

But, most of all, the government can work with us to make savings to the budget without delivering a tax cut to big business. You see, despite all the hard work by Labor—despite the sensible and fair amendments we were able to achieve—this budget continues to benefit the most wealthy at the expense of the poor. And Labor cannot quietly stand by and watch that happen. This budget continues to give the biggest of businesses a $50 billion tax cut, where most of that and their profits go to overseas owners. It just does not stack up.

This budget continues to give wealthy individuals earning more than $180,000 a cut to their marginal tax rate. The top three per cent of income earners should not be receiving a tax cut from July next year if the bottom 75 per cent will miss out. It is the bottom 75 per cent who need our help, not the top three! How can we ask the poorest of Australians to sit back and watch the rich get richer? Of course we cannot, and Labor will not. In my electorate—where, as I told the House in my first speech yesterday, we have the triple whammy of low incomes, high unemployment and an ageing population—how can we expect people to sit back and watch the wealthiest three per cent of Australians get a windfall when the poorest 75 per cent miss out? Of course we cannot, and we will not.

The Turnbull government is not a government that believes in fairness. Labor does believe in fairness. And the Turnbull government is a government that prioritises the wealthy over the poor. Labor will never do that. While we have said we will not block supply, we will continue to argue for fairness alongside fiscal responsibility. The Australian people demand no less. The people of my electorate, Paterson, in the hardworking Hunter Valley, demand no less.

The Turnbull government continues to include the same unfair measures that the Abbott government tried and failed to get passed in this parliament. The Turnbull government, like the Abbott government, continues to try to cut $30 billion from our schools. Schools in Paterson need more funding, not less. Schools throughout Australia need more funding, not less.

The Turnbull government, like the Abbott government, continues to tell us that $100,000 university degrees are acceptable. University students in Paterson would not agree. They come from hardworking families who make incredible sacrifices for these young people to achieve their full potential. The people of Paterson want their children to go to university, but at what cost? One hundred thousand dollars? How can that be acceptable? It is not acceptable to Labor.

The Turnbull government, like the Abbott government, wants to increase the cost of medicines for everyone by increasing the co-payments as part of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. The people of Paterson cannot afford to pay more for essential medicines, and nor should they have to—nor should any Australians. The Turnbull government, like the Abbott government, dares to call parents rorters and double dippers through changes to the Paid Parental Leave scheme. The people of Paterson, the parents of Paterson, are not rorters and double dippers; they are hardworking people trying their best to work and raise families and strike some balance between the two. They deserve the respect of the government, not the derision of the government.

The Turnbull government, like the Abbott government, wants to cut bulk-billing incentives for diagnostic imaging and pathology services. The people of Paterson cannot afford to pay more for imaging and pathology services that are essential to their health—nor can the people anywhere in Australia. The Turnbull government, like the Abbott government, wants to make young jobseekers wait four weeks before receiving income support. What an insult, and at a critical time when people are on the precipice! The people of Paterson probably find this the most offensive of all. In the Hunter we have one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the country. Routinely it is 15 per cent, but it has been over 20 per cent. How are these young people to support themselves without jobs and without government help? Four weeks may not seem like a long time, but it can be a lifetime and it can be a critical time for someone with no income.

The Labor Party will always put people first. We will continue to take the lead on budget repair that is both fiscally responsible and fair. That is what we stand for. That is what Labor stand for. And I implore this government—this government that has so much potential to do good in our country—to do that good rather than trying to choke those who are truly in need while supporting those who, potentially, do not need the same sort of support.