They say a week is a long time in politics. That must be why it is hard to envisage just how far we have come since a year ago.
On coming into government, we inherited $123 billion of deficit from our friends from the Labor Party. We saw how this resulted in a decline in business confidence, rising cost-of-living pressures and endless media reports of doom and gloom, particularly in my electorate of Leichhardt.
After an admittedly tough budget in 2014-15, in the past 12 months we have looked down the barrel of lower commodity prices, falling revenue and weaker-than-expected global demand for our Australian products. But, despite all these odds, the tide has certainly turned. We are now on track to bring our deficit back to $82 billion over the next four years. We are on track to bring Australia's bottom line back-in time-to surplus.
So today I would like to focus on some of the measures in this 2015-16 budget that will mean the most to my constituents in Leichhardt. The measures in this year's budget are concrete evidence of this government's commitment to the development of northern Australia.
There were 42 recommendations in the Pivot north report, and a number of these have already been taken up prior to the launching of the white paper. One of them is the $101 million for the Northern Australia Beef Roads Fund. This is a recommendation that we made, recognising that the beef roads right across northern Australia-or the development roads, as they were called-built 50 or 60 years ago, no longer have the capacity to carry the vehicles of today. The vehicles are too wide, too long and far too heavy, and this road network is shut down for a long time during the wet season.
These roads are really the arteries of the heart of northern Australia. This is a first investment in upgrading these roads. Rather than just starting in an ad hoc manner, we will be using the CSIRO to analyse where the priorities are and where we can get the maximum return for the investment. We will start at that point and work our way through.
Two other key highways that have been recently announced are the Hann and the Gregory highways. The Hann Highway, from my perspective in Leichhardt, is critical. It will be a parallel highway to the Bruce Highway, cutting significantly travel time and distance from the Atherton Tableland and Cairns to Melbourne. More importantly, it will give access 365 days a year, basically giving us a flood-proof route to Melbourne, which is critical, because it does not matter what we spend on the coastal highway; there will always be an issue in relation to extreme flooding. This, of course, will alleviate that and it will be very much welcomed not only by the Etheridge and the Flinders Shires, but also by my area in Cairns-by Advance Cairns, the Chamber of Commerce and others who have been calling for this for a long time. It will be of significant benefit to us.
Tuberculosis has been another ongoing challenge for us, and I have been talking about it in parliament for a long time. The budget has offered a $15.4 million investment and a vital opportunity for James Cook University, which hosts the Australian Institute for Tropical Health and Medicine. There are two funding streams: one is for $6.9 million to build Australia's primary research capacity, funding projects focused on priority diseases, including dengue, malaria, Hendra and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis-all these tropical diseases that are of such concern. Another $8.5 million will commercialise research in new tropical therapeutics and diagnostics undertaken in Australia. It is a very important investment and it is a down payment, if you like, into tropical medical research.
Another area that I have been raising serious concern about over the last four and a half years is the skyrocketing and unaffordable price of insurance in Northern Australia. It is great to see that $2.1 million has been allocated to establish the Northern Australia Insurance Premium Taskforce. This will identify the best way that government can invest and support the residents of Northern Australia in bringing back to parity and affordability insurance across the region. The intention is to have the recommendations handed down by November this year. I applaud this decision because it is the one thing that will stop any opportunity for development in Northern Australia. If we do not have access to affordable insurance, we are in all sorts of trouble. I also applaud the setting of a timeline for when we will see some change.
There was also $3.7 million allocated for the development of a new infrastructure project pipeline. This will inform us of the priorities identified in the Infrastructure Australia's Northern Australian infrastructure audit as to where we can start to invest to get the maximum benefit and to prioritise those projects. The money will go to areas where we know we will get the maximum benefit.
Another change was Amending the Zone Tax Offset to exclude fly-in fly-out and drive-in drive-out workers. People who are eligible for this tax offset must bring their families into these communities and live there. If they want to remain in metropolitan areas, they will not be entitled to it. It is an important way of getting people back into remote communities.
There was also a most significant $5 billion concessional loan facility, which is aimed at increasing private sector investment in port, water and pipeline infrastructure across Northern Australia. To me, this presents opportunities for projects like the Nullinga Dam, the O'Connell Creek Water Storage Project, Urannah Dam, Cloncurry Dam, Elliot Main Channel and others. There is an opportunity to source some money through this project and that in turn will accelerate the development of these projects that are critically important for the development of the North. In feedback on the development fund, the CEO of Advance Cairns, Mark Matthews, said:
It is a clear and positive indication of the Federal Government's recognition of the important role that [Northern Australia] has to play in the nation's growth and their commitment to supporting development in the region.
I certainly endorse those comments. Organisations can start to apply from 1 July 2015 for access to the first tranche of this funding, which is $388 million. The development of northern Australia is a 20-year plan. This is certainly a down payment for that. It was disappointing to see that the Queensland state treasurer, Curtis Pitt, did not quite seem to understand the concept of these concessional loans as being part of the overall white paper when he came out criticising and saying, 'Oh, it should have been grants rather than concessional loans.'
He needs to understand that this is something that a state government could actually access and that it is not too late for that to happen, rather than using the excuse of cost as a reason not to go ahead with the dredging of the Cairns inlet. He could, in fact, look at accessing some of these funds to be able to start the Cairns port dredging project, which is critically needed for the long-term development of Cairns.
On the small business package: of course, we know that small business is the engine room of our economy. In the past we have had very high rates of business failure in Cairns. It was the highest in Australia at one point, together with our very high unemployment and the highest youth unemployment in mainland Australia.
This budget recognises that, as our economy changes, the role of small business will be even more important. Tax cuts for over two million Australian small businesses will help to drive investment in employment. Australian small businesses now have the lowest company tax rates since 1967. Small businesses can now fully and immediately deduct every asset they acquire that is valued up to $20,000 for tax purposes, a substantial increase from the previous $1,000 threshold. This can be used for new tools, home computers, vehicles, kitchen equipment, machinery or whatever.
Linda Smart, from the Village Herb Farm in Kuranda feels that small business is the often-forgotten industry in Australia. She is very happy that they are being recognised in this year's budget. The comment from Linda was:
Anything we can get back that allows us to put more back into our business and employ more people is appreciated. It's also productivity benefits – we can spend money on technology, or other things to improve our business, sooner than we would have otherwise.
Of course, this feeds into the opportunity to employ more people.
Information will also help businesses to capitalise on the new free trade agreements with South Korea, China and Japan. An example of this is a local success story. In March, MSF Sugar in Gordonvale shipped 52,000 tonnes of Brand 1 high-polarity raw sugar to Japan for the first time. MSF CEO, Mike Barry, told me that they could not have accessed this Japanese market with their premium product without the FTA.
The first shipment was considered to be so significant that Japanese officials flew to Cairns to celebrate the event. The government's Growing Jobs and Small Business package will create the right conditions for Australian small businesses to thrive and grow.
The budget also continues our government's commitment to stronger communities by focusing on building the infrastructure we need. There was additional money there for the Bruce Highway, with $31m for the Cairns Southern Access Corridor stage 2-the widening of Robert Road to Foster Road; money for the Cape York Regional package was confirmed-the $208.4 million, with $48 million to be provided in 2015-16; and, of course, there was nearly $3 million continuing for the Torres Strait sea wall project.
There was close to $10 million for upgrades to local roads and bridges. This included a double payment for councils under the Roads to Recovery program. There was funding for upgrades to remote airstrips, vital to maintaining connections with our regional communities. And, of course, there is the Stronger Communities Program, in which every electorate, including Leichhardt, will receive $150,000-odd a year over the next two years to contribute to small capital works projects. We often come across projects that could use a kick-start grant of between $1,000 and $20,000, and I am certainly looking forward to consulting with communities as to how we can support them with that.
Another area that we are very much involved in is in removing the uncertainty on pensions for veterans and families by making sure that increases are in line with the highest indexation measures possible. This is going to be great news for 2,344 Leichhardt residents. The age pension will continue to increase twice a year at the highest-available indexation rate, and the family home will always be excluded from the pension assets test.
The revised childcare subsidy will see medium- to low-income families better off, and we will be trialling new ways to support families using pilot nanny programs to help shift workers, for example, access affordable and appropriate care. We are ensuring, of course, that nobody misses out on receiving a period of paid parental leave. There is $20 million to renew the National Drugs Campaign, focusing on young people and their parents and seeking to raise awareness of the harm caused by illicit drug use, particularly ice.
As I said earlier, it is amazing just how far we have come in a year. This budget reflects our responsible, measured and fair fiscal policy. Nationally, our economic plan is working. Growth is up. Jobs are up, with nearly 250,000 new jobs since the election. Retail sales are at record levels, as are new dwelling approvals. Locally, there is confidence in the far north, whether it is news that construction has started on stage 1 of the $400 million Aspial seven-tower development; the EIS for the $8 billion Aquis integrated resort and casino project has been approved; and renewable energy projects such as Mount Emerald wind farm and the Lakeland solar projects can progress now that the RET has been sorted.
It is a very, very positive time. I am excited, and there is only more to come, with the release of the white paper later this month. We have a vision for where we want to be. We have a plan for how we are going to get there. Let's bring it on.