Second Reading – Appropriation Bills (Budget)
Last week I travelled from one end of my electorate to the other, from Bundaberg to Hervey Bay, stopping in Childers, Woodgate, Burrum Heads and Howard. I wanted to give Hinkler residents an opportunity to speak to me directly after the release of the Coalition’s first budget. I thought that if any electorate was going to be critical of the budget it would be mine. Hinkler has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country, we have more age pensioners than any other federal electorate and Bundaberg has the highest rate of disability in Queensland. And we also have amongst the highest rates of smoking and obesity.
Before the budget was released, the member for Maribyrnong, Bill Shorten, shamelessly targeted my electorate of Hinkler—just like Chicken Little scaring the vulnerable, by telling them that the coalition wanted to cut pensions. Let me assure the residents of my electorate that the sky is not falling. We promised not to change age pensions in this term of parliament and we have not. At the 2013 election we promised to get the budget under control and to grow the economy, and that is exactly what we are doing.
There is no doubt that this is a tough budget, but those difficult choices will reduce Labor’s deficits by $43 billion and debt will be $275 billion lower over the decade. This is because governments, like households and businesses, must live within their means. Small business people know better than most that if you are going to borrow money to expand your operation or invest in capital that you need a plan to pay that money back. When you start borrowing money to pay the staff and keep the lights on that is when you are in real trouble.
Likewise, it is ill-advised for households to spend money on luxuries they cannot afford. But that is exactly what the former Labor government did. Did they forget that at some point the credit card would have to be paid off? Or did they just not care? Labor had no plan to repair the budget when it was in government. Labor has no plan now. They offer no alternatives; just rhetoric and scaremongering. After six years of Labor, what did Australians get? We got the bill!
In his budget reply speech, the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, said that this budget was drawn up by people who have never lived from pay cheque to pay cheque. I take great offence at remarks like that, and Labor’s constant insistence that coalition members are out of touch with working families. I am a tradesperson. I did a four-year electrical apprenticeship at Fairymead Sugar Mill. I am a farmer: my wife and I own two cane farms, and my parents continue to operate a harvesting business. I am university educated: at the age of 22 I worked part time as a lifeguard to support myself through an engineering degree at the Queensland University of Technology. I have established a small business that employed up to 15 people at any one time. It delivered vocational training and consultancy services to industrial workplaces.
I have three children, and my wife works part-time as a radiographer at one of the local hospitals. But the member for Maribyrnong, Bill Shorten, is private-school educated, studied arts and law at university and has since worked as a union bureaucrat and a politician. I would be interested to know how many times Mr Shorten has lived from pay cheque to pay cheque.
I can tell you there are plenty of people in my electorate of Hinkler who do live pay cheque to pay cheque every single fortnight. Some of them have been in my office this past week, deeply concerned about how the budget will affect them. But when you explain the detail, many realise just how much misinformation is being peddled by those opposite. Pensioners and children under 16 will pay no more than $70 per calendar year for medical treatment under the proposed $7 medical co-contribution. And the indexation of the fuel excise will add less than one cent per litre to the cost of petrol. The funds raised through these budget measures will go towards a medical research fund and road infrastructure.
To make matters worse, some media reports have been very one-sided or scant on detail. To promote my post-budget tour across the electorate last week, one local TV journalist asked if she and her cameraman could accompany me on a street walk. The three people I approached understood that tackling Labor’s debt would require everyone to play a part, and that our current situation was unsustainable. However, the journalist overlooked all three of these supportive constituents, and instead ran grabs she later obtained from people who were unhappy with the budget. I am grateful to those Hinkler constituents who have read the detail for themselves—those who have contacted my office or approached me directly to seek answers to their questions. My door is always open.
There is no doubt this is a tough budget: And it is only fair that everyone contributes to the repair task. Australians earning over $180,000 a year—who already pay significant taxes—will be required to pay a temporary budget repair levy of two per cent for three years. We have frozen politicians’ pay and we will put an end to the gold pass travel entitlements.
Each year, the government spends more on welfare than it does on the education of our children and the health of our people. The government is tightening the eligibility for family payments to ensure it supports those most in need of assistance because without policy changes the cost of the age pension is projected to increase by 70 per cent over the next decade, from almost $40 billion a year currently. The previous government increased the pension age to 67, and we are further increasing that age to 70 by 1 July 2035. Australians will still be able to retire at whatever age they choose, but those born after 1966 will have to be 70 before they can receive the age pension.
The government will introduce incentives of up to $10,000 to encourage businesses to employ people who are over the age of 50 who have been on unemployment benefits or the disability support pension for six months. From September 2017, pensions will be indexed to the CPI rather than wages. This way we can ensure that our pension system remains sustainable while pensions keep up with the cost of living. The family home will continue to be excluded from the social security means test.
This government recognises the contribution self-funded retirees make to the community, including saving the nation considerable pension costs. From 20 September 2014, the income thresholds for the Commonwealth Seniors Health Card will be indexed annually to the CPI, enabling up to 27,000 additional people to qualify for the card over the next four years. Indexing the current income thresholds will mean more self-funded retirees will not lose out on entitlements because of changes in their income, giving them more freedom to actively contribute to their community.
Seniors Health Card holders will no longer receive the seniors supplement. However, they will continue to receive a range of concessional benefits, including lower co-payments for medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and access to the lower threshold for the extended Medicare Safety Net. Changes to the PBS will increase the cost of prescriptions for concessional patients by 80 cents to $6.90, and after 60 prescriptions it will be free for the rest of the calendar year.
But the budget contains plenty of good news too! This budget delivers on every one of my election commitments to the people of Hinkler: $4.75 million for Old Toogoom Road and River Heads Road; $350,000 for the Hervey Bay Hockey Association to install synthetic turf; $500,000 for upgrades at the Hervey Bay and Bundaberg surf lifesaving clubs; $93,000 for Bundaberg Regional Council to install surf safety surveillance cameras at the Elliott River Mouth, Palmers Creek, Innes Park and Mon Repos; and, of course, $125,000 for the Centenary of Anzac Local Grants program across Hinkler
After repeated calls from local community groups, we have committed $245.3 million over four years to continue the National School Chaplaincy program. The coalition is delivering more than $12 billion in overall funding to the veteran community, including honouring our election commitment to deliver fair indexation for military superannuants.
Even after the carbon tax is repealed to save average households $550 per year, the associated tax breaks and energy supplements will remain in place to provide cost-of-living relief. Much to the relief of Hinkler farmers and commercial fishers, the diesel fuel rebate has been retained. The rebate will be indexed at the same rate as the fuel excise, meaning there will be no net increase in the cost of diesel for those who receive the rebate. The reintroduction of indexation on the fuel excise will cost an additional $24 per year for someone who uses 50 litres of fuel per week. As I previously mentioned, money raised from the indexation of the fuel excise will be spent on roads, bringing the government’s infrastructure budget to a record $50 billion.
The coalition understands that well-planned infrastructure, delivered in a timely manner, is vital to our economy. It also facilitates service delivery to regional Australia and provides long-term employment and opportunities for training and development. That is why $13.4 billion will be spent in Queensland, including $6.7 billion on the ailing Bruce Highway. We are delivering a $1 billion National Stronger Regions Fund. Councils and community groups will be able to apply for grants for capital works projects that will regenerate communities with high unemployment. There is $300 million for the new bridges renewal program and $100 million to address mobile telephone black spots
I understand that transport infrastructure is not the only hurdle that regional businesses have to overcome. Here in Australia, regulation is high, input costs are high, labour costs are high, the Australian dollar is high and profits are low. We are working to change that. We are cutting the company tax rate by 1½ per cent to help around 800,000 businesses. Repealing the carbon tax will help business flourish because the electricity costs incurred through irrigation and refrigerant gases, for example, skyrocketed with the introduction of the tax. We are cutting red and green tape to save businesses time and money, which will lift productivity and boost economic growth.
Building on the free trade agreements we recently signed with South Korea and Japan, the government will provide $15 million to help small exporters. There is $9 million to support our recreational and commercial fishing bodies, $100 million extra for agricultural research and development and $20 million to build a stronger biosecurity and quarantine system.
Let me tell you why we are trying to make it easier, not harder, to do business in Australia. It is business that grows our economy. It is business that creates jobs. Small businesses are the backbone of regional Australia. They employ 50 per cent of all Australians working in the private sector. Jobs are sorely needed in my electorate of Hinkler. Unemployment is our single biggest issue. Unemployment is often a contributing factor in cases of marital breakdown, domestic violence, criminal activity, poor nutrition, health problems and declining school attendance. Employment gives people the ability to pay their own way and provide for their families. The people of this great nation should be able to depend on their elected representatives, but that does not mean we should be building a nation of dependence. Under the Rudd and Gillard governments, unemployment in the Hinkler electorate increased from six per cent in the September 2007 quarter to 9.6 per cent in the June 2013 quarter. That compares to an unemployment rate of 5.4 per cent for the nation or six per cent in Queensland.
As promised, we are revitalising the Work for the Dole program to give people routine, structure, presentation skills and access to potential employers. Young people will now be required to earn, learn or work for the dole. We are fortunate to live in a country where this government provides a safety net to those who find themselves without employment. Requiring Australians to work for the dole ensures that that obligation is mutual. I recently spoke to the state member for Hervey Bay, Ted Sorensen, about the reintroduction of the Howard government’s Work for the Dole program. When Ted was the local mayor, Work for the Dole participants helped construct all the walkways and bike paths along the esplanade. Ted cannot speak highly enough of the program. He says it built self-confidence and gave participants a sense of achievement. Many went on to gain long-term employment as a direct result of their involvement in Work for Dole.
Financial incentives will be provided to employers and employees to get young people into the workforce. Long-term unemployed Hinkler residents aged between 18 and 30 will receive $2,500 if they hold a job for a continuous period of 12 months and a further bonus of $4,000 when they attain 24 months of service. For the first time, those undertaking an apprenticeship will be able to apply for concessional loans of up to $20,000 in a scheme similar to HECS. Students with low socioeconomic backgrounds or from regional areas will have access to a new Commonwealth scholarship scheme.
In the past eight months, seven federal ministers, three parliamentary secretaries and four coalition senators have visited the Hinkler electorate to hear about the issues impacting local residents and businesses. I also hosted the first Nationals party room meeting for 2014 in Bundaberg. Born and bred in the Bundaberg district, I take every opportunity to advocate on behalf of Hinkler residents. With this budget it will be no different. Constituents can rest assured that I will take their grievances to the relevant minister.
In closing, gone is the unstable Labor government that in a very short time gave us two prime ministers, two Treasurers and five Assistant Treasurers. Australians have elected a coalition government to repair the budget and build the stronger, more prosperous country that we all want. This budget starts that process. I commend the bills to the House.