Appropriation Bills 1 & 2 (2013-14): Growing local economy and jobs

Hydromet_.jpgThis has been a difficult budget to frame with uncertainty in the world economy, where Eurozone countries have significant debt and double digit unemployment in some countries, with unemployment in some countries well above 15 per cent, with youth unemployment close to a quarter of some youth populations and the unemployment and uncertain outlook in the United States. When we look to some of our major trading partners where we have traditionally looked for growth opportunities, certainly there is significant uncertainty there as well. So there is a difficult global environment and a difficult domestic environment in which to frame a budget, with a drop-off in projected revenues of over $16 billion over the budget period.

Within this very difficult environment to frame a budget and to ensure that we keep the Australian economy moving forward, I think the Treasurer has to be commended for the job that he has done. Australia stands alone in the developed world, with record low unemployment with a five in front of it, interest rates at a historic low and low inflation. The economy still continues to grow, but we know that the growth is both fragile and uneven. There are many areas throughout the nation that are not enjoying the benefits of the boom in the resources sector, particularly in areas that have a higher than average exposure to trade and to the impacts of the record high Australian dollar.

Within this context, the priority of this budget has been jobs, ensuring that Australians are kept in jobs and that businesses are keeping the doors open. If we had to make a choice between bringing the budget into surplus and ensuring that we had people in work and businesses open, we chose the latter, and we did that unashamedly. They are our priorities. They are Labor priorities.

Our national outlook is positive and bright, but it does not mean that we can lose our focus on measures to ensure that economic participation is maximised and that those who need it are supported by a strong safety net of government services and social support. We are well situated to build on our record of resilience over the past five years. Over 950,000 jobs have been created under Labor. There are more people in work today than at any other time in our nation's history. We have a triple-A credit rating by all three major global agencies. We are one of only eight countries to achieve that with a stable outlook. Our economy is more than 13 per cent bigger than it was when we came into government. As I said, we have contained inflation. We have record low interest rates and strong public finances.

With the 2013-14 budget, the government made a choice to keep our economy strong and to invest in the future. It is a budget that responds to the current economic circumstances and continues to support jobs and growth. For members like me, for Labor members, supporting the growth of employment is one of the principal reasons for being in this place and for advocating the policies of the government in my electorate. Jobs give our lives dignity and a way forward. A job gives us the ability to imagine a future with a family and a home of our own.

Budgets are about choices. They involve choices about priorities and about what to spend and where to save, but they are much more than an aggregate of those decisions. At the core of this budget is a choice about our future. It brings together Labor values with the circumstances that we find ourselves in. So, while the economic circumstances before us are unlike any that any government before has faced, our approach to the budget remains embedded in those core principles. No government, as the Treasurer says, gets to choose the global economic circumstances in which the budget is framed, but we do get to choose our priorities as a nation.

We have prioritised two Labor initiatives in this budget: firstly, the Gonski school education reforms, which are about ensuring that every child at every school has a quality education and every school has the resources to deliver that education; and, secondly, ensuring that the National Disability Insurance Scheme disability care is funded so that the lottery of life and how you acquire a disability do not determine whether you have the appropriate medical and other care to meet your needs throughout the course of your life. Those two priorities are very well supported in the community, prioritised in this budget and funded and accounted for in this budget. They are something that people will look upon in decades to come and say, 'Thank God that a government'—this Labor government—'had the courage and the foresight to instigate those reforms.'

The challenge for government is to manage the process of economic transformation. These transitions are never seamless. Our economy does not exist in a vacuum. They are taking place against a backdrop of a global economy undergoing profound change. Nominal GDP growth has fallen below real GDP growth in through-the-year terms over the past three quarters. This is unprecedented in the 50-year history of our national accounts. It is largely due to the combination of the sustained high dollar in the face of lower terms of trade. This scenario makes it tougher for exporters, who receive less for what they sell and, in an attempt to keep their profits up, push back on suppliers, often paying less than they would in better times. Everyone is seeking to cut their costs. This has an impact on margins and on jobs. It is also hard on those domestic firms that compete with imports that have become cheaper, in some instances over 40 per cent cheaper, over the last two years.

Nationally the task of Labor in government is to build a strong yet fair economy. Good economic management just does not grow the economy; it ensures the growth is enjoyed by the maximum number of people. In my electorate, in the Illawarra in the Southern Highlands, just like in other areas of Australia like Geelong and Broadmeadows, our economy is dealing with the impact of the high Australian dollar on manufacturing. In the Illawarra we feel the brunt of these economic circumstances. While our local economy is undergoing its own transformation from traditional manufacturing to a growth in service sector employment, manufacturing still strongly underpins our economy. One in 10 jobs remain within this sector. It is good news that the Australian government is strongly backing the Illawarra and highlands economy through this economic transformation. First and foremost, the Labor government is investigating $1 billion to support and grow jobs. This billion-dollar investment will significantly boost Australian manufacturing, including in the greater Illawarra and beyond.

Our plan for Australian jobs has three core strategies: backing Australian firms to win more work at home, supporting Australian industry to increase exports and win business abroad, and helping Australian small and medium sized businesses to create and grow new jobs. In addition, the $30 million Illawarra Region Innovation and Investment Fund is helping to attract new industries to the region. This fund has leveraged $62 million in project investment, and there are some truly great success stories coming out of this investment. There is new investment in communication manufacturing equipment that is being used on the rollout of the National Broadband Network, and new investment in computer system and design.


As I was saying, the Illawarra Region Innovation and Investment Fund has led to significant new investment and investment in the pipeline, including new food manufacturing, innovative printing facilities and a new mental health facility, just to name a few. These are important investments to help an economy transition. Of course, it is added to by the fact that the National Broadband Network is being rolled out quicker and in greater density in the Illawarra and Southern Highlands region than in any other area in the country. This will be the game changer for the Illawarra.

The Illawarra and Southern Highlands is laying the foundations we need to build a stronger economy now and for the future. And it will be based on six key assets. First is our skilled and talented local workforce, with expertise gained from over 100 years of experience in engineering manufacturing and mining. Second is the rollout of the National Broadband Network, as I have mentioned, which will connect our region to the markets of the world and enhance the development of new industries, and transform the way we live, work and play.

Third is the University of Wollongong, which serves the region and the country by producing world-class professionals in medicine, law, education, engineering and information technology. In fact, one quarter of all information and communication technology graduates in Australia come from the University of Wollongong. The government has put over $100 million investment into capital works at the university and there is more investment in the pipeline. Fourth, there is the Port Kembla harbour, which gives the potential to develop a freight transport and logistics hub for the region. The Australian government's $25.5 million investment in preconstruction work and engineering work on the Maldon-Dumbarton rail link is helping to make this potential a future reality. The Maldon-Dumbarton rail link would connect Port Kembla to the major mines and freight corridors of the Central-West and Western Sydney. It can also take pressure off the Sydney-Wollongong passenger line by removing some of the freight off that line.

Fifth, we are blessed with a wonderful natural environment: our stunning beaches, rolling green hills and magnificent escarpments all provide an impressive backdrop to our daily lives in the Illawarra region. Not only that, but our cultural diversity and strong arts and sporting culture is a part of the foundation for future opportunities in tourism, sports and other economic development.

Finally our services sector: the health and aged-care services are rapidly expanding. Indeed, the largest employer in the region is now community services and health. The Illawarra is an attractive and affordable destination for retirees and our potential to develop a seniors economy is significant.

I have spoken before in this place about the need to ensure that our local manufacturers and local workers get a fair share of the enormous opportunities that are being generated by Australia's mining and resources boom. I welcome the fact that earlier today we had the opportunity to debate our plan for Australian jobs—and that passed through the House of Representatives. This is an important piece of legislation which will connect the manufacturers, the fabricators, the industries and workshops within my electorate and right around the country to the benefits of the mining boom, providing work and opportunities now and into the future.

I would like to say something about the debate that is raging at the moment about the use of 457 visas. There has been some speculation about widespread rorts within the scheme. We do not need to do a forensic analysis of this to know that there is something wrong when I have got workers in my electorate who say they have applied for jobs in businesses and have been turned back only to know that overseas workers have been brought in on 457 visas to fill the jobs that they are ready, willing and able to do. I think it is wrong and I do this on the basis of an understanding that well over one quarter of the workforce of my electorate has come to the Illawarra and surrounding regions from another country. At another time they came to work in the steelworks, the mines and the services industry within the Illawarra so there is no objection to workers coming from overseas to work here. In fact, my electorate was founded on that. But you have something that is very wrong when you have workers who are ready, willing and able to stand up and take a job and they are being overlooked by employers, those very same employers who are coming to government and saying, 'We want the right to access to 457 visa workers to do these jobs.' Close to five or six years ago, the Leader of the Opposition referred to workers as job snobs if they would refuse employment with one business because they thought it was not good enough for them. Well, we run the risk of some employers being the new job snobs by the fact that they are overlooking local workers to hire workers from overseas—and that is simply not good enough.

I have been pressing the immigration minister to introduce new measures to ensure a local work test is put in place for these workers. I am particularly concerned about workers who have been thrown out of lifelong employment and they are now in their 50s, seeking work and are willing to travel for work and they feel that they are being discriminated against in their search for work in this regard. I am hopeful that the minister of immigration will respond to this and ensure that a new test is put into place to ensure employers must test the local labour market and must offer available positions to local appropriately skilled workers before they turn to the government and ask the government to approve 457 visas in this regard. It is a good budget and it deserves our support in difficult times.