Appropriations Debate - Budget

Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (12:02): It is an important opportunity each year for members of this place to talk in the appropriations debate about the budget that has been presented to the nation in that year. This is important because budgets, by their very nature, are not simply the dry tallying of figures or assessment of income and expenditure; they are, indeed, a description of the priorities and the view of the nation held by the government of the day.

Given the budget that was brought down in May by the new Abbott government, it would not surprise the chamber that, for an area like mine, we have grave concerns about, and take serious exception to, the priorities that are set out in this budget and also to the view of Australia that is encapsulated by the way those priorities are constructed and put together in the budget.

I will go to quite a few of matters, but I want to address one matter directly that I did not have in my notes, which the previous speaker has just raised in terms of his lack of understanding of how members of the Labor Party can be concerned about the Medicare co-payment and, at the same time, be happy for the cost impact of the carbon price to remain on households. His bemusement by that position completely fails to recognise that one of the reasons we are supportive of the structures we put in place for a carbon price is that we provided a household assistance package which ensured that those who are at the most vulnerable end of our community, in particular, were protected from the cost impacts of the flow-through of a carbon price.

I notice the current government has not dismantled it. We did not put an extra impost on families and households without having a package in place to provide assistance for them to manage it. This is the big difference. Families are now facing a Medicare co-payment, on top of things like additional fuel costs and changes to their payment entitlements, for which they are getting no compensation. It is an issue that the previous member needs to have a closer look at if he is still bemused by that position.

He also went to the issue of the budget's financial position. I would point out to him that it was not a case, as he described it, of the sacking of Rome at the end of the Labor government in terms of the nature of the financial position. In fact, we left this country with a triple-A credit rating. That is unprecedented, and it was a very important indication that, as many nations acknowledged, we had managed the nation through one of the most difficult international times during the global financial crisis in a way that meant that our financials were on a strong footing and the impacts on things like employment that make a real difference to people's lives had been ameliorated by the sorts of measures that we had put in place. Many countries were looking to Australia to see exactly what we had done and why we had managed so well through that process.

Of course, all governments always have a responsibility to look to the sustainability of their budgets over the longer term. All governments do that. The reality is that in the lead-up to the election the current Prime Minister was asked time and time again by journalists, community members and so forth: if you are saying that there is a budget problem and something has got to be done about it, what exactly are you going to do? He constantly made assurances about the things that he would not do in creating his solutions to longer term budget sustainability, and he made them pretty clearly. That is why people are white-hot angry about what has actually been put in place in this budget. They are angry in my area as well.

The member for Throsby and I have had a lot of comment and contact at our offices from people who were particularly concerned about the Medicare co-payment. It has been the case that we have valued our universal healthcare system in this nation for many decades now. It is such an important part of the social fabric of this nation that those opposite and their leaders have always declared that they are, indeed, the 'best friends that Medicare has ever had'. They know it is absolutely untenable to say anything else to the Australian community, because we do value the fact that in this country it is your Medicare card that will determine your access to health care not your credit card. You only have to talk to the older generation who remember the pre-universal health care days where people were struggling to pay off massive debts that they ran up to their general practitioners during periods of illness to understand this.

This is an underpinning social support network in this country that has been well supported for a long time. Australians are not fools. They know that the co-payment system will dismantle the universality of that system, and they are not going to stand for it. Stephen Jones, the member for Throsby, and I organised an opportunity for people to come together in Wollongong on the weekend to have a talk about the impacts that this decision, this GP tax, would have locally on the community. Over 300 people came together within less than a week to express their grave concerns about it. We were joined by a young doctor who is in training who indicated that the university based doctors who are in training have a national association, and that national association had joined together with that hotbed of radicalism, the Australian Medical Association, to indicate their opposition to the GP tax. Speakers opposite might one after the other say, 'This is just those terrible Labor people. They don't understand the reality.' What they need to understand is they are also telling that to almost the entire medical profession who are also rejecting the GP tax as a policy implementation out of the budget. In my own area, the Illawarra Mercury spoke to some local doctors and they repeated exactly the same concerns.

We have spent quite a long time now in this country working in one of the most important areas of medical intervention. That is early detection and prevention. Those are schemes—for example, across cancers and chronic health issues—that we need to address in order to stop the expense at the other end where you get people in acute and diabolical health situations putting the pressure on the most expensive interventions. You get prevention and early detection right and not only do people have a better outcome and a better quality of life; it is actually an efficient and more financially sensible way to go.

The foundation of prevention and early intervention is the general practice, having a strong relationship with your GP, going regularly and making sure you participate in all the sorts of screening and opportunities there are. If people, particularly those on fixed or low incomes, have an instance of illness and think: 'I've got a couple of days to go till the pay comes in. I've got 10 bucks in the purse. I have to get milk and bread to get me through. I can't go to the GP; I'm going to put it off,' that will be a real decision that people will be making, and that is not what we should be supporting. It will not achieve and will run absolutely counter to all of the interventions that we have been making over recent years to try to get the health of our nation on a more effective footing by getting into identifying illnesses quickly and early and treating them effectively.

People are white hot with anger about the GP tax and, for all the valiant efforts at defence from those opposite, I have no doubt that they are hearing exactly the same thing in their own communities, because it is really bad policy. They cannot even put the argument—the straw horse—that it is about addressing the budget deficit that they doubled before halving, because it is not going to address the budget deficit. It is going into this specific long-term medical research task. Nobody objects to medical research and nobody objects to the investments in finding the cures for the future—of course we do not. But you do not do that off the backs, pockets and purses of the ill and sick. That is absolutely the wrong way to go about achieving that outcome.

Across the board, obviously one of the very clear things that the Prime Minister said time and time again before the election was that there will be no changes to pension, and what do we see now in the budget? We see a proposal to change the way in which pensions are indexed in a way that will ensure pensioners see their increases in the pension over the future be much smaller than they necessarily would have been, because they are going back to indexing by the CPI. This is to come in in 2017, and the government is saying we will go to an election before then. If it is the case that you want to take that to an election, take it to an election. Do not build it into your budget papers in order to claim the credit for it but not actually have told people before the election that that is what you are intending to put into place.

And don't even get me started—I am talking to my local councils, as I am sure many people are—about the flow-on effects of the cuts to funding to the state governments for all the pensioner concessions that are made available and how that is going to impact on people in terms of all sorts of costs across utilities, council rates and so forth. So no changes to pensions—absolutely a lie, absolutely misleading, before the election, on what was actually going to happen in the very first budget.

The same, obviously, for changes to family tax benefit and the impacts on families. In terms of the family budget, my area has one of the highest commuter corridors in the country, Wollongong being an hour south of Sydney. We have tens of thousands of people who travel to Sydney and south-western and western Sydney for work. By and large many of them use a car for that purpose, so the changes to the new fuel tax will have a very significant impact on their family budgets given that quite often it is more than one person in the family travelling. That is a really significant effect for them.

Finally, I want to touch on an area that is also of direct concern to our region, and that is youth unemployment. I am not going to go into it in too much detail, because I had an opportunity in the matter of public importance before the House yesterday to talk about this a bit. If you are a parent with a child over 18, you would not want to be any of the members opposite going out and talking to those families. I am a mother of sons who are in their 20s. To think that if someone under 30 were to become unemployed, they would get no income support and would have to go back home and rely on mum and dad to support them up to the age of 30 is incredible. That does not even begin to acknowledge the very many young people who do not have a family whom they can rely on to go to for support if they suddenly find themselves unemployed and have to face months with no money coming in. It is extraordinary.

The question was put to the Treasurer in question time: what do you actually expect them to do? To me, the Treasurer looked confounded at that. I do not think he understands the reality for people under 30 and the fact some may have no-one to go to other than perhaps a charity to help keep a roof over their heads or food on the table. Then they say, 'They need to learn or earn.' Great, we all want people learning or earning, but what if you already have one qualification and you are not entitled to an exemption from the fees? Where are you supposed to find the money to pay for a course? You will not be given any income support. You are supposed to go and learn but you do not have the capacity to pay the fees that will be required let alone find a job. You are not going to have any money to travel to get to interviews or to dress and prepare for job interviews and so forth. It is an astonishing proposition and it is both cruel and heartless. I think it reflects the very foundation of where this budget is aiming to hit and punish people in order to address the perceived problem that the government wants to address.

If you want to talk about getting the budget back into surplus and those sorts of longer term tasks, we can have a conversation about that. We have some suggestions. Perhaps the government could put off their gold-plated Paid Parental Leave Scheme for a while—there is a thought. I think secretly, and perhaps less secretly on occasions, some of those oppose would profoundly agree with us about that proposal. There are options, but what they have chosen to do as a government reflects their priorities and they will be judged on that. I would suggest that there is going to be a lot of pain ahead for members in having those conversations with their communities because their communities will not endorse the values that are at the heart of this budget and will feel doubly ripped off, because they were not told before the election what that was going to be about.