Main Committee - Second Reading

in Speeches

Ms Vamvakinou (Calwell) (7:42 PM) —I am pleased to speak this evening in support of Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2009-2010 and related bills which support the 2009 Rudd Labor budget. This is a budget that is framed in difficult times, but it is a budget that is honest, constructive and aspirational in its intentions. It is big on investment but targeted and well crafted, and its intentions are very clear and specific.


I want this House to know that people in my electorate are very concerned about the current international economic outlook and the impact that it is having on the Australian economy. In conversations with them, they tell me that they fully understand the ramifications of inaction and failure to invest and stimulate the economy. My constituents, just like other Australians, understand that there are times—and the most severe global economic crisis in decades is certainly such a time—when we are going to have to borrow in order to protect our current economic capacity so that we can secure our nation’s future. That is what the Rudd Labor government has done and, indeed, that is what this budget seeks to continue to do. The people in my electorate understand that this budget is about supporting jobs now and delivering the investments needed to strengthen the economy for the future.


We all know that the global recession has wiped $210 billion from the budget, and this has been the biggest revenue drop since 1931. My constituents understand that the government has had to change some of its priorities because of this recession. They understand that our No. 1 priority is stimulating the economy to support jobs and businesses, otherwise the full burden of the recession will fall on the shoulders of ordinary Australians far more than it already has, and the people in my electorate are amongst the most vulnerable.


It is well-accepted fact by mostly everyone—unfortunately, except the opposition—that, if we do not take measures to stimulate the economy and support jobs, hundreds of thousands more jobs will be lost. For the people of Calwell, that means more job losses in an electorate that is already carrying a greater burden of job losses than anywhere else. This budget supports jobs and small businesses today by investing in the infrastructure we need for tomorrow. It is a nation-building budget focusing on major roads, rail and ports, on a national broadband network, on education, health and clean energy.


This budget is about building towards growth. While we all have rigorous debates up here about how much we should or should not spend or how we should proceed, there are certain facts that cannot be ignored. Fact 1: we must secure the job market. The livelihoods of Australian people depend on it. Fact 2: we have to rapidly develop our infrastructure and technology as a greater priority than before, not to allow them to stagnate, if we are serious about the future prosperity of this nation. We have to invest in our children’s education and give our kids the best opportunities and resources to develop into the future builders of economic, social and cultural prosperity.


While it might be opportunistic for those opposite to condemn the level of the government’s investment, it is imperative to remember that this debate is not just about us. It is not just about this year or the next. It is about the future of this country. It is about the economic prosperity of the people I represent. It is about their jobs and it is about their family’s future. That is why this government has focused on education, building infrastructure and innovation as its key priorities.


Last year the committee that I chair, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation—and I note the member for Grey, who is a very active member of that committee—conducted an inquiry into research training and research workforce issues in Australian universities. We received over 100 submissions and the report, titled Building Australia’s research capacity, which was tabled in the parliament in December 2008, made some 38 recommendations. The inquiry found that the challenges we face in boosting Australia’s research capacity are not simply confined to academia. The report also found that there was a broadly held view that many of the challenges we currently face in boosting our research capacity are in large part the result of years of neglect of research training in Australia, making the task of addressing the challenges all the more urgent.


The value of research and innovation in today’s knowledge economy cannot be overestimated. Our research reputation was once admired and respected around the world, but the previous government failed to invest in our research training, instead resting on its laurels while the international research landscape changed and developed, leaving Australia’s to fall behind. We were allowed to lag behind, and this government has had to move quickly to address this crisis. Our research and innovation capacity is key to our future economic prosperity. The 2009 budget is all about securing our future economic prosperity, and the government therefore—and indeed the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr, and the Minister for Education, Ms Julia Gillard—have quite correctly moved to inject massive funding into the education sector across the board, from pre-prep to primary to secondary and on to tertiary education and research.


The budget builds on the education revolution, which commenced immediately upon this government taking office. It will see a further $5.7 billion invested over four years, with one particular aim being to increase university places. Some 50,000 students will be able to enrol in a degree course by 2013, with an emphasis on making many more places available for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This investment is about and for the young people in my electorate, and I welcome it with great hope and excitement. For too long, opportunities for young people in my electorate have been inadequate. They have become resigned to a culture and perception that, if you live and go to school in Broadie, you have little hope of getting to higher education.


Investment in achieving world-class higher education will see some $2.1 billion pumped into the higher education system. The government’s investment in education is based on well-documented evidence presented to it by the Cutler and Bradley reviews and further reaffirmed by the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Innovation’s findings that we must invest in our education, research and innovation capacity. I am pleased, therefore, that the budget has responded to the thrust of the industry committee’s recommendations by allocating some $703.1 million to Australian universities to improve teaching and learning facilities, to enhance research capacity, to provide better student income support and to increase the stipends for postgraduate students. Although the budget was not able to deliver on everything we wanted, it met the most significant and immediate needs. The universities and the postgraduate associations have welcomed this budget measure.


The government should be commended for heeding the calls of the education sector. We have done so in a very difficult period for our economy. But we have done so because we know that to shirk that responsibility now is to condemn generations of Australian children to lost opportunities. The opposition talks about condemning future generations to paying off debt. I reject that. This government is about securing the future of this country so that when greater stability and activity returns to the international economy Australia will be best prepared to move forward quickly.


The budget’s investment in our children’s future does not stop here. It continues with $155.3 million to help out-of-trade apprentices and apprentices who have lost their jobs complete their qualifications. It provides 3,650 additional places for 19- to 24-year-old job seekers in the Australian apprenticeship access program to assist them to enter as apprentices or undertake training. This budget aims to help Australians across the board in regard to education and training. We want to protect jobs, but we also want to skill and reskill Australians so that they can participate actively and confidently in the workplace and so that they can play a significant and integral part in our economic recovery.


To this end, I welcome the 10,000 training places for retrenched workers to be delivered through the Productivity Places Program. My electorate has had more than its fair share of job losses in the last 18 months, with the most recent being the Pacific Brands closure of its Coolaroo factory. My constituents’ livelihoods and futures depend on a budget that invests in its people. We should welcome this, not oppose or condemn it. We should show faith in our people by investing in their abilities, their potential and their welfare. I believe that we can be confident that such a vital investment will pay dividends in the shape of a healthy economy and a more just and creative society.


My electorate has many low-skilled and vulnerable people who are most likely to suffer during this period of economic difficulty. I am grateful that this government considers the welfare of these people a national priority. I am grateful that the budget allocated $28.2 million for 5,888 additional language, literacy and numeracy places for adults in order to improve their job prospects.


For years, elderly pensioners have literally begged for relief. For years, I and other members in this House, including opposition members, have received delegation after delegation of individual pensioners and action groups still fighting the good fight on behalf of others telling us that they were in desperate need of relief and assistance. The previous government was aware of their calls, but I am afraid that they ignored them repeatedly throughout their term, responding instead with one-off handouts. They did this even though pensioners were telling us that this was enough and that what they really needed was an increase in their pension, as this was the only way that they could begin to get on top of the burden of the cost of living. I have lost count of the many times that I was told by elderly Australians that they wanted to be given an increase in their pension so that they could manage and control their own budgets and plan ahead.


I admire this generation of Australians. They come from a different era. Most of them have worked hard. They have done their time, as they have repeatedly told me, paid their taxes and made their contribution. Their expectation of a respectable pension that allows them to meet their financial commitments and aspire to some sort of dignified comfort in their retirement is understandable. I agree with them. It is their right. While most of this generation was in the workforce, there was no opportunity for superannuation. The expectation was that the age pension would be their safety net in their retirement. This government has understood this. This has been a long time coming. It is the largest and most significant increase in the age pension seen. It is an increase of $32 per week for singles and $10 for couples. This is an increase that I believe has provided the surety of income that pensioners in my electorate wanted.


I want to pay tribute at this point to someone in my electorate who has been at the forefront of pensioners lobbying for the increase to the pension, Mr Peter Yiallouris, who was until recently the president of the Federation of Greek Elderly. At 80-something, Peter lobbied and fought for this increase. He is retired and of ill health now. I want to pay tribute to his sense of obligation to his community and to the cause of the elderly and aged pensioners. He represents that generation of postwar migrants who came here to work, and work they did, building their families’ futures and simultaneously this country’s future. People like Peter understand the need to invest in nation building, because they were once part of a previous nation-building exercise all those years ago.


Carers are another special group of people in our community. In my electorate I have some 2,373 carers in receipt of carers payment and 5,616 carers in receipt of carers allowance. This is another group that has needed a more permanent form of increased assistance. The government has quite rightly replaced previous budget one-off bonuses with a permanent carer supplement of $600 per annum for carer payment recipients and an additional $600 per annum for carer allowance recipients for each eligible person in their care. Welcome also is the addition to the existing child disability assistance payment of $1,000 a year for carers who receive carer allowance.


I have a fair bit to do with carers in my electorate and I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to them all and in particular to note the amazing work that Brite Industries does in my electorate by providing meaningful employment to people with disabilities. I know many of them and I want to note here for the benefit of this House their commitment. In many cases their carers are elderly parents who themselves are facing the prospect of needing care and they worry about the ongoing care of their children when they are no longer able to care for them. They welcome the extra support the budget provides for them but continue to be concerned about their loved one’s welfare. This is heart wrenching and just makes their commitment and sacrifice all the more admirable. We must support these wonderful people. To the extent that it can, this budget lends that much-needed relief and support.


The budget is a nation-building budget and infrastructure is central to this agenda. I just want to mention that my electorate, a very safe Labor seat—and safe seats are often concerned that their relative safety diddles them out of getting things—received a total of $11 million under the government’s Community Infrastructure Program. Of that, $9.5 million has gone towards the building of the Hume City Council’s $14.7 million new library and learning centre in the suburb of Craigieburn. I was fortunate to have the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government come to my electorate on 6 May to make the announcement. I make mention of this project because it is important infrastructure not only for my community but also for the government’s big picture agenda, which as I have mentioned focuses on education and skilling young Australians for the future by providing the best possible resources.


In this project the people of Craigieburn and in particular the young people will have the benefit of a state-of-the-art, modern and expansive learning facility—a library and a learning centre that will become an information hub. Its key features are learning spaces, conference and meeting areas, kitchen space for children and for adult learning programs, a story-telling amphitheatre, and print and technology literacy services. In general it is a space that will benefit young and old in my electorate.


The Craigieburn Library and Learning Centre project will promote social inclusion and lifelong learning and of course will provide a significant number of new jobs over the 33-month period of construction of the building. This is a direct stimulus to the local economy. It is a win-win for everyone. My community, particularly the Craigieburn community, is literally over the moon about this piece of infrastructure. Modernisation and state-of-the-art infrastructure is coming to areas of my electorate that have long felt ignored, making the people in our community significant stakeholders and integral parts of this country’s future prosperity and development.


As an addendum can I mention that Craigieburn was recently listed as having amongst the highest uptake of the government’s first home owners scheme, making Craigieburn a high-growth suburb with lots of young families and new housing estates. The government’s scheme makes housing more affordable and of course keeps the local building industry going. This is where Victorians are choosing to settle their families, so infrastructure is a major issue. I know that many people will welcome the budget’s extension of the first home owners boost.


There have been some difficult decisions that the government needed to make. On the one hand we have acted to stimulate the economy in areas we believe have short- and long-term impact. On the other hand we have had to make some tough decisions that are not necessarily popular but essential to long-term economic management. One of these is reducing the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate for singles earning more than $75,000 a year and for couples earning more than $150,000 a year.


Another is that the eligibility for the age pension rises from 65 years to 67 years. I appreciate the anxiety that this has caused, especially amongst workers who rely on their physical fitness and strength to earn a living. However, we need to bear in mind that this decision is consistent with what is happening across the globe. As life expectancy rises, health care, nutrition and general fitness improve and, in our case, as the population ages and pressure grows on the ability of taxpayers to provide adequately for retired citizens, this is a responsible and sensible policy decision. It is tough but ultimately fair, as I believe is the case with the budget overall. In an ideal world, we could all retire at a time of our choice and live luxuriously within our means. In an ideal world, we would have full employment and the prospect of an economic downturn would be an interesting phenomenon of ancient history. But this is the real world and, under the circumstances we find ourselves in, I commend the Treasurer, the Prime Minister and the government on their vision, their compassion and their commitment to a strong, vibrant and, above all, just Australia.