APPROPRIATION BILL 2008-2009

The Commonwealth budget is an opportunity for a government to lay out a path forward for our nation. It is an opportunity for the government to address the challenges that our nation faces now and in the future. This budget demonstrates to the Australian people that this is a government which will fulfil its commitments on education and skills, its commitments on climate change and the environment, its commitments on infrastructure and its commitments on health. It is a budget which does so in a fiscally responsible manner. The budget has delivered a surplus of 1.8 per cent of GDP. Together with the Prime Minister’s five-point plan to tackle inflation, this budget demonstrates that Labor is the party of fiscal responsibility and economic reform. It is a budget in the Labor tradition, which delivers for the people of our Isaacs electorate. It delivers for working people, for seniors, for pensioners and for those doing it tough.

The Commonwealth budget is an opportunity for a government to lay out a path forward for our nation. It is an opportunity for the government to address the challenges that our nation faces now and in the future. This budget demonstrates to the Australian people that this is a government which will fulfil its commitments on education and skills, its commitments on climate change and the environment, its commitments on infrastructure and its commitments on health. It is a budget which does so in a fiscally responsible manner. The budget has delivered a surplus of 1.8 per cent of GDP. Together with the Prime Minister’s five-point plan to tackle inflation, this budget demonstrates that Labor is the party of fiscal responsibility and economic reform. It is a budget in the Labor tradition, which delivers for the people of our Isaacs electorate. It delivers for working people, for seniors, for pensioners and for those doing it tough.

I want to mention just a few aspects of the budget, starting with taxation. This budget delivers income tax cuts worth $46.7 billion over the next four years, announced prior to the last election. These tax cuts are directed to low- and middle-income earners, easing the pressure on working people and working Australians and on those seeking to re-enter the workforce. These tax cuts put real money back into family budgets, or individual budgets, of the people of my electorate of Isaacs.

Thousands of seniors in Isaacs will benefit from the 2008 budget. Many seniors in my electorate of Isaacs are doing it tough. They are under pressure. The failure of the previous government to deal with the inflationary pressures in our economy has hit those on relatively fixed incomes, such as pensioners and retirees, particularly hard. The Rudd Labor government understands the pressure that they face, and we believe that they deserve our support. The government has made available in this budget $5.6 billion over five years to increase the utilities allowance from $107.20 per year to $500 per year, to increase the seniors concession allowance from $218 per year to $500 per year and to increase the telephone allowance to $132 for those with home internet access. In addition, there is $1.4 billion for a $500 bonus to be paid to eligible seniors. As we have heard, the Prime Minister has specifically included retirement incomes and pensions in the review of taxation that is to be headed by the Secretary of the Treasury, Ken Henry.

On education and child care, the budget shows that these matters are of the highest priority for this government. Education and child care are priorities that the government shares with every single parent in our electorate of Isaacs, and I know this because all through 2007 that is what I heard from the people in my electorate. This budget is an education budget. After 11 years of neglect and underinvestment by the former government, this budget meets our election commitment to invest in education at all levels. In early childhood, there is $2.4 billion over the next five years, which includes more than $500 million to provide all Australian children with access to 15 hours a week of early learning programs for 40 weeks a year in the year prior to formal education. Through the childcare tax rebate, the government is helping parents meet the cost of child care. This is a $1.6 billion investment that will see the rebate increase from 30 per cent to 50 per cent for out-of-pocket expenses and will raise the cap from $4,354 to $7,500. Again, these are matters of great concern to people in the electorate of Isaacs, particularly young families in fast-growing suburbs like Carrum Downs, Skye and Keysborough.

This budget also demonstrates the government’s commitment to building a world-class school education system through the government’s $1.2 billion investment to deliver a digital education revolution, guaranteeing access to information and communication technologies for all years 9 to 12 students. There is $577.4 million to assist schools in improving student literacy and numeracy and $2.5 billion over the coming decade to build and upgrade school facilities so that all young Australians have the opportunity to study a trade at school. Again, this is of great importance to the people in my electorate and to people throughout Australia. This budget provides $4.4 billion to assist parents in meeting the education costs for their children, and, specifically, eligible families will be able to claim 50 per cent of key education expenses, with a limit of $750 for each primary school student and $1,500 for each secondary school student.

There is another area of great importance dealt with in this budget—that is, dental health. The Rudd government is providing national leadership in this area. It is an issue on which I have previously spoken, and one on which I campaigned strongly during the last election. One of the more miserly acts of the now departed Howard government was the scrapping of the Commonwealth dental health program, which ripped more than $100 million from the public dental system. It was a government action which directly affected people who could not afford dental care, and the effect of it was, of course, that many people stopped getting dental care altogether. For some people the legacy has been chronic illness and, at a more general level, a greater burden for the public hospital system. This budget is seeking to reverse that miserly act of the Howard government back in 1996 by committing $290 million over three years to re-establish the Commonwealth dental health program. This will help state and territory governments to fund up to one million additional consultations and treatments. As well, there is a commitment of $490.7 million over five years for the teen dental plan. In our electorate, these measures will help cut public dental waiting times, and services will be provided at the Central Bayside Community Health Service, the Greater Dandenong Community Health Service and the Frankston Community Health Service.

Turning to the budget measures that deal with the environment, I would refer to something I said in my first speech in this place: the need for us to care for the land and to think of the land as ‘our country’ in the Aboriginal sense of the word, a place to be cherished and nurtured. This budget has placed the care of our land, of our country, at the centre of national policy. It is a budget which directly addresses the challenges posed by climate change, delivering $2.3 billion to initiatives across government. What a relief it is for the people of my electorate—indeed, what a relief for all Australians—to have a government which wants to do something about climate change, which is committed to doing something about climate change and which has started to do something about climate change. The budget also commits $2.2 billion to the Caring for Country program, focusing on six areas of national priority. Importantly, for my electorate of Isaacs, which has a long stretch of coastline along Port Phillip Bay, coastal environments and critical aquatic habitats are areas of national priority for the Caring for Country program.

I turn to other matters of longstanding concern for me and which are dealt with in this budget, the first being legal aid funding. It can be said that this budget delivers in legal aid funding. Access to our justice system is vital to maintaining a fair and democratic society. Legal assistance at legal aid centres and at community legal centres can be the difference between social inclusion and social exclusion. Legal aid funding is important because it enables full access to justice for people who need it but are unable to obtain professional representation. Legal aid funding, the provision of legal aid, directly empowers people for whom, without legal representation, contact with the legal system would be potentially a terrifying if not a crushing experience. It can also be said that legal aid funding in fact saves money in other areas by aiding the proper working of the justice system and reducing the costs of running that system because of the function performed by professional representatives within the system. I am proud that the government is committed to improving legal services for the most vulnerable in our communities. Even at this time of fiscal stringency, the Rudd Labor government has increased funding for legal assistance, and it stands in stark contrast to the Howard government, which slashed legal aid funding in its first budget. This government has provided an additional $11 million for the Expensive Commonwealth Criminal Cases Fund. This will ensure that national security trials do not drain legal funds from other areas, such as family law, and it is likely to be particularly important in Victoria, where major Commonwealth criminal trials occur.

I should note also that prior to the budget the Rudd government announced a one-off $7 million injection to legal aid commissions, which included $1.9 million to Legal Aid Victoria in my home state. As well, the government provided a one-off $10 million injection to support the Commonwealth Community Legal Services program, which is notable because it is the largest ever injection of funds into the system, and $4.9 million into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal services. This funding will support the important work serving people in our electorate by community legal services, including in particular the Peninsula Legal Service, which will receive from this one-off support more than $270,000 in additional funding, including $250,000 for family duty lawyer services, a very important function at the Dandenong Court. The Rudd government will also—this has been announced by the Attorney-General—place the issue of legal aid front and centre in the work of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General so as to work with state and territory governments on more effective provision of legal aid.

I last come to the provision that this budget makes in relation to consultation on human rights and civil responsibilities. In this budget the Rudd Labor government delivers on its election commitment to fund a national consultation process on human rights and civil responsibilities. Labor governments have always had a proud record on human rights. It was a Labor Foreign Minister and later Labor leader, Doc Evatt, who helped draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which was the first piece of truly universal human rights law. It was a Labor government which passed the Racial Discrimination Act in 1975, a highly controversial issue at the time. It was a Labor government which developed the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission and it was a Labor government which introduced the Sex Discrimination Act and the Disability Discrimination Act.

A Rudd Labor government is committed to the international law of human rights. The Attorney-General and the Minister for Foreign Affairs recently announced that Australia is beginning the process of ratifying the optional protocol to the Convention against Torture, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. All these international conventions were effectively ignored by the Howard government. As Australians we can do better. We will do better. The Rudd government has embarked on the process of working on these international conventions.

Our consultation at the national level on human rights and civil responsibilities will ensure that all Australians are given the opportunity to have their views heard on this critical question for our democracy. The consultation will provide the opportunity to talk about the rights which we value, the rights which we cherish and the rights which we want to protect. The $2.8 million commitment in this budget is the next step in Labor’s long record of protecting human rights. We know that community consultation can be very effective from the consultation which occurred and led to the Charter of Rights and Responsibilities now enacted in my home state of Victoria. That community consultation was a process by which the consultative committee attended 55 community meetings and 75 stakeholder consultations and received over 2,500 submissions in just six months. It represented a tremendous dialogue on human rights throughout Victoria. We should praise the work of the consultative committee, which consisted of Professor George Williams, Rhonda Galbally, Andrew Gaze and Haddon Storey, who was a former Attorney-General in a Victorian Liberal government. The budget measure for a consultation on human rights and civil responsibilities will ensure proper consideration for how best to express and protect the rights and responsibilities which are fundamental to an equal, just, democratic and tolerant society, which is the kind of society we want for our nation.