Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (Mon 23 May 2011, 19:17):
I am pleased to be speaking in this important debate on the appropriation bills. This has been a difficult budget to frame because it has had to be framed in the context of a patchwork economy, where we are dealing with inflationary pressures. In some regions and sectors where investment is booming, the labour market is tight, while in other areas and sectors—like the retail sector and regional Australia—people are feeling the pinch. They are indeed doing it tough.
It has been a budget where we have had to deal with the residue from years and years of neglect in areas such as infrastructure and mental health. We have had to balance where we can inject additional and much needed funding at the same time as investing in long-term needs such as skills and skill development.
In framing budgets such as this there have traditionally been two approaches. The first approach was very popular under the former government, and that was the Santa Claus approach. The Treasurer would stand up on budget night and act like Santa Claus, ensuring there was a present under the tree for every constituent group. Nowhere was this Santa Claus mentality on the annual budget process more prevalent than in the former government's treatment of pensioners. Year after year pensioners would have to wait until budget night to know whether the Treasurer would deign to grant them their annual one-off bonus and enable them to continue to pay their utility bills and meet their fortnightly payments.
With our approach to the budget, we did away with all of that and readjusted the annual pension so that we had a record increase in pension payments of up to $128 per fortnight for people on the minimum rate. Contrast that to the Santa Claus approach to the budget. The approach of Labor in government puts the principles of economic and social responsibility ahead of the annual Christmas, Santa Claus, approach, handing out lollies and goodies but neglecting the national interest. Our approach to the budget reflects our values and takes into account the long-term national interest.
This budget is about returning the budget to surplus before too long but also managing the different pressures within the economy and focusing on long-overdue national needs, such as mental health, with a $2.2 billion mental health initiative, and also ensuring that we do not leave people behind with the growth that we anticipate over the next three years. It is about ensuring that those people who were left behind in previous years, in previous mining booms, are not left behind as we move through mining boom mark 2. This budget is about the future, not the past. It is about balancing the needs of today with the task of building the economy of the future. It is about jobs, skills and education and training, which are the building blocks of economic participation and productivity.
This is a Labor budget because it is built on the foundation stone of the over 750,000 jobs we have created since we came to office and because it anticipates the creation of half a million jobs over the next few years. It is a Labor budget because it is focused on jobs and on not leaving people behind.
In this time of relative prosperity, compared to what is going on in the rest of the region and the world, it is easy to forget what a success story the Australian economy is. Around the world there are unemployment rates of eight, nine and even 10 per cent. In some countries, through the global financial crisis, millions of jobs were destroyed. The loss of a job is catastrophic. It not only derails an individual's aspirations and life plans but affects their whole family. It affects people's sense of confidence and identity. We know this on our side of the House and that is why we have given priority to creating and protecting jobs. That is the cornerstone of this budget. It is also a budget which is about improving support for Australian families, with additional support for low- and middle-income families and families with teenagers. Next year, this government will spend $32 billion on assistance to families through the family tax benefit, the childcare rebate and the baby bonus and paid parental leave schemes. As we do this, we are also prioritising the next generation of workers.
I was very interested to hear the member for Murray stand up recently in this place and express her concern for school funding. I hope we enjoy the support of the member for Murray when the review into school funding reports towards the end of this year and we try to reform a system of school funding which, frankly, has been distorted by the actions of the former government. I hope we do enjoy the support of the member for Murray because the sorts of principles that will inform our approach to school funding will be of great benefit to students in electorates such as mine and, I suspect, such as hers.
The member for Murray addressed the issue of the access of regional students to higher education. It is a fact that in just one year there has been an increase of 21,000 university students receiving youth allowance as a result of the reforms to the system made by our government last year. In just 12 months, the reforms to the youth allowance have seen a 15 per cent increase in the total number of university students receiving youth allowance. That is 135,000 students in March 2010 compared to 156,000—an increase of 21,000—this year. There has been a 108 per cent increase in the number of dependent university students from disadvantaged backgrounds receiving the maximum rate of youth allowance, many of them from my electorate of Throsby, and a 22 per cent increase in the number of rural and regional university students receiving youth allowance. The member for Murray may do well, as may other members in this place, to look at these statistics because she will realise that the changes to youth allowance and other associated reforms are actually benefiting students from rural and regional areas. More than 36,000 of the 107,000 young people who are now eligible for youth allowance for the first time and who are receiving more money than ever before come from rural and regional areas.
My electorate of Throsby covers a region of great economic and social diversity. While there are many areas of economic prosperity and wellbeing, Throsby also contains some areas of great disadvantage, with higher than average unemployment, particularly long-term and youth unemployment. I see the member for Gilmore in the chamber. She would know that suburbs that are now part of her electorate also fit this description. It is my belief that governments of all persuasions have failed people in these suburbs and more needs to be done to ensure that we do not hand disadvantage from one generation to the next through intergenerational dependence on welfare. My electorate of Throsby was once an area where manufacturing was the biggest employer and now it is the services sector which accounts for the biggest percentage of employment, including in the construction, retail and healthcare sectors, which have nearly doubled over that period.
In this story of economic transformation we know that some people have been left behind and they remain a challenge for the government to assist, which is why I am very pleased that in this budget we have identified 10 regions that require particular attention throughout the country. One, in the local government area of Shellharbour, which falls partly in my electorate of Throsby and partly in the electorate of the member for Gilmore, has been identified as a priority area for place based initiatives. What this is all about is identifying those people who are either at risk of long-term unemployment or have been long-term unemployed, identifying the barriers to employment and putting in place local and personal solutions.
We have identified teen parents as one of these groups. I am very pleased that we will be putting in excess of $40 million towards assisting teen parents and jobless families to re-enter the education system and re-engage with education, job training and jobs to ensure that they increase not only their own life chances but those of their children. If we do not do something about this as we enter mining boom mark 2, we will ensure that once again we have failed this group of people and we will condemn not only these young parents but perhaps their children to a lifetime of welfare dependence and disadvantage. I am very proud that the Gillard government has identified this area and this group of people as a priority in this budget. I look forward to working with the member for Gilmore and the agencies in the Shellharbour local government area to ensure this program really does work.
We are doing this all in the context of bringing the budget back into surplus by 2012-13. This will entail the largest and fastest fiscal consolidation that has ever been seen in this country or is likely to be seen anywhere around the world. We are able to do this because the economic fundamentals are very strong and because the prospects for the economy are good. We are able to do this because we have taken some tough decisions in terms of budget cuts. Spending is something that members opposite obviously love to speak about or see their frontbenchers speak about, but, interestingly, when it has been their turn to stand up and speak in this debate as representatives of their local constituencies, it is a love that dare not speak its name. Speaker after speaker have talked about the areas where they would like to see more money being spent, but not one of them has suggested areas, particularly areas in their own electorates, where they believe spending should be cut. We are proud of the fact that in difficult economic circumstances we are taking the tough decisions which will enable us to bring the budget back into surplus by 2012-13 and ensure that we deal with the priority areas of mental health and skills development, ensuring that we have the workforce and the skills to meet mining boom mark 2, and that we spread the wealth that is created by that mining boom beyond the mining states and the mining regions to other regions and other sectors of the economy at the same time that we ensure that we do not leave people behind and we deal with the long-term issues of neglect, such as mental health.
I would like to conclude on an issue that was raised by the member for Banks in his speech in this debate, where he talked about his support for the government doing everything it could to ensure that we were spending in the most effective and efficient way possible. He made a contribution to the debate about the efficiency dividend, which has been increased in this budget by 0.25 per cent to 1.5 per cent. This is an annual cut to the running costs of public sector agencies, or the majority of public sector agencies. I have in a former life been very critical of this as a blunt instrument. I stand shoulder to shoulder with every other member on this side of the House on the need for the government to find savings and efficiencies wherever possible. I believe that the public sector needs to ensure that it is able to perform its functions in the most efficient and effective way possible. But I maintain my belief that I think that the efficiency dividend is a very blunt instrument, and I would like to work with all members of this House and others to ensure that, in the years to come, it can be replaced by a much more sophisticated instrument that does not disadvantage the sorts of agencies that were alluded to by the member for Banks—the small cultural agencies and the small central agencies—and also those agencies that are providing welfare and other assistance to the most needy in society. (Time expired)