I certainly welcome the opportunity to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2017-2018 and the associated bills. In my view, it has been a very responsible budget and it builds on initiatives that the coalition government has built in the past and which it has certainly been very good at.
Just from the perspective of a broader overview, it is great to see that for the Future Fund, which was established by Peter Costello back in the Howard years, we have now given undertakings and protections through draw-downs to allow those assets to continue to grow. Of course this will guarantee the protection of superannuation payouts for many years and for future generations.
Again, not long after that there was the coalition initiative for the Medical Research Future Fund. Then in this budget we are setting aside some $10 billion to establish the infrastructure fund. Again, this is looking to the future. We are looking at building that up to $75 billion and, of course, that is going to be a great opportunity for us to be able to look at projects-roads, ports et cetera-into the future. Starting to put the money aside now makes a lot of sense.
I have to say that looking towards a surplus in 2020-21 is something I am pleasantly surprised with. Given the situation we found ourselves in when we came to government, it is something I thought we were highly unlikely to achieve. It is certainly refreshing, and I know that many of my constituents appreciate the fact that we are actually on the right trajectory. The fact that we will be paying for our liabilities for essential services et cetera by 2018 shows that we are certainly going in the right direction.
In regard to some of the more specific measures, I would like to touch on a few matters that are relevant to Leichardt. I will start with the banks. I have been a very vocal critic of what has been happening in banking over many years. Many of my constituents have been profoundly negatively impacted by banks. The banks have engineered defaults on businesses that have never missed a payment; they have engineered things to make sure that they sent them broke. So I do not have any issue at all with the new levy applying to the big four banks plus Macquarie, with liabilities greater than $100 billion. It certainly provides a more level playing field for the smaller banks and non-banking competitors.
I think we need to be reminded that since 2008 they have been receiving the benefit of the Australian government guarantee scheme. That is the government and the taxpayer putting themselves on the hook should there be an issue in that regard. This has given them a great commercial advantage, so it is little wonder that Australian banks are the second most profitable banks in the world. So I do not think it is unreasonable to call on some sort of dividend from those who have benefited the most from this. From my perspective, the levy is quite reasonable.
I also welcome the banking executive accountability scheme. If the banks start to feel the impact in their pocket of wrongdoing by their underlings, I am sure we will start to see that behaviour change that we have been calling for for so long. They should be held accountable for these things. I hope it is not just deregistration; I would like to see them hit in the hip pocket as well.
The establishment of the independent authority is a step in the right direction, but we need to make sure that we do not put the cap at $5 million. If individuals have been bankrupted through these unconscionable processes that we see from the banks-engineering of defaults et cetera-whether they have lost $100 million or $1 million they are just as broke. They cannot afford to go through lawyers. Believe you me, once the banks have put them through the system they cannot afford it. I have people in my electorate who have lost close to $200 million and 500 employees. At the end of the day, I have had to argue to get them on the age pension. Where are they going to be able to get the support to go through lawyers to be able to argue their case? They deserve that moment to be heard. So I think the threshold is inappropriate-$5 million is not enough. Secondly, we have to deal with the historic cases as well, not just current and future cases. There are people who have been suffering and battling for 10 years. The banks know that if they drag it on long enough the problem goes away-because people pass away and with them goes the capacity to argue their case. So we have to move quickly to deal with historical cases as well.
Insurance has been a major issue in my region of Northern Australia. It is still unresolved. It is something I have been battling for for a long time now. I welcome the $7.9 million that has been allocated to the ACCC to monitor insurance pricing in Far North Queensland. The fact that the Insurance Council of Australia does not like it suggests to me that it is good policy. But it is not enough; we need to go further. This is why I continue to push for either a catastrophe underwriting scheme or a mutual.
There also needs to be more done at state government level through strata legislation and the removal of stamp duty on renewals. Of course, we offered the Queensland government $12.5 million to work on engineering reports for strata which to date has not been used. There is also other work that the insurers themselves need to do rather than sit back and demand taxpayer-funded mitigation or mitigation funded by their policy holders. Even when it is done, there is absolutely no reflection in relation to a decrease in policy. So there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in that area. I note that Margaret Shaw, a wonderful advocate for this issue, has welcomed the ACC scrutiny and believes the money will be well spent, as long as the ACCC has the power to rectify extortion, should it occur. She said: 'The Insurance Council of Australia has proved the insurance industry is incapable of regulating itself, otherwise surely someone somewhere would have noticed a sudden mass of increases and acted on them. Now it's time for someone else to be responsible for keeping an eye on the insurance industry. Let's hope that the ACCC is up to it.' I agree 100 per cent with her observation of that.
On welfare payment reforms and supporting people in need, in my area we have one of the largest unemployment levels, particularly youth unemployment levels, in the country and yet we have one of the highest numbers of employment opportunities. We rely very heavily on backpackers to fill those roles. It is just that people do not want to travel away within 100 kilometres or, in the case of the tourism industry, do not want to be pouring coffees and things like that; they choose to do other things. I think reforms like trialling cashless welfare cards for people who fail random drug tests are a very positive step in so much as if somebody presents themselves for a job and they are on Newstart they should be ready to start work. If they present themselves and they are high then surely to goodness it is not unreasonable to expect them to get some support. By identifying the problem, we can then channel them into the right agencies. I do not think Newstart was designed to support an ongoing drug habit. I certainly strongly agree with the escalating financial penalties for that minority who consistently fail to meet their participation requirements. We have a situation where not one person last year incurred a financial penalty by failing to meet job seeking obligations such as applying for positions and turning up for Centrelink appointments. I think that these are the sorts of things that we need to take a harder stand on so that they can be encouraged to take what jobs are available at the time.
I was very pleased to see the $27 million of round 3 Stronger Communities Program grants offering grants of $5,000 to $20,000 to local organisations for small infrastructure projects. It was very well received in my electorate. In rounds 1 and 2 we saw great outcomes including, in my region: a bus for the Bamaga dance troupe up in the tip of Cape York, new yards for Lakeland Horse Sports, various men's sheds equipment, sporting infrastructure, solar panels for the West Cairns Bowls Club and shade sales for the Cooktown race course et cetera. Those are amazing outcomes and, of course, for every dollar spent there was at least a dollar spent by that community group to match, so it was great leverage. At the bigger end, the new $472 million Regional Growth Fund will invest in transformational projects that will unlock the potential for our regions, with government investment of $10 million and upwards, and $200 million of this funding will increase our commitment to the Building Better Regions Fund. In my region there were 21 applications in round 1, and I look forward to hearing about and working with the successful proponents for round 2 projects.
On infrastructure, the Cape York Region Package got $54 million, which was great. We will see the sealing of the Peninsula Developmental Road in my lifetime-something I would have said was not achievable 10 years ago. There is $70 million being spent in 2017-18 on various Bruce Highway upgrade measures in North and Far North Queensland, including $6.2 million on the Robert Road to Foster Road upgrade. Only 12 kilometres of the Bruce Highway falls within Leichhardt, but the upgrades over the other 1,688 kilometres certainly benefit my region. Of course, our local councils will welcome the unfreezing of indexation on the financial assistance grants, and they will also benefit from the Roads to Recovery funding, with 14 councils sharing something like $5.7 million in the next financial year.
There was also benefit for our hardworking small business community, with the extension of the $20,000 instant asset write-off for a further 12 months, to 30 June 2018, and the turnover threshold for small businesses being lifted to $10 million. That will certainly enable a lot more small businesses in my region to invest in their growth, increase productivity and also improve their cash flow.
The budget also included a $300 million incentive for state and territory governments to remove unnecessary regulatory barriers. I think that we have led the way there from a federal perspective, with some $5.8 billion of cuts to red tape. It is certainly not unreasonable for the states and territories to do their bit and for us to offer them some incentive as well.
It was great also from the seniors perspective. I really supported the reinstatement of pensioner concession cards for 92,000 senior Australians. This was something that I thought it was absolutely essential that we do, as was permanently extending funding for homelessness, another significant issue. This is certainly an issue in my area.
With regard to the NDIS, we have seen the criticism, and we saw the Medicare scare campaign at the last election. I think we are guaranteeing Medicare. With the Medicare Guarantee Fund, which will pay only for Medicare and for medicines, we can ensure that service is not going to be reduced and more medicines will end up on the PBS, hopefully putting that scare to bed once and for all.
Fully funding the NDIS is another major initiative. I hear criticism from people earning about $22,000. I think we need to put it into perspective: if you are earning $22,000, you are currently paying $66 for your Medicare levy, and in 2019 you will be paying $99. This is still allowing a contribution, which is great, but if you are on $100,000 a year your contribution at the moment is $2,000, and it will go up to $2,500-again, proportional to your contribution.
The school funding, of course, was major. Every single school in my area benefited from it, some to the extent of tens of millions of dollars of additional funding.
So I think the budget that we have delivered has been overwhelmingly successful in my electorate. It has been very strongly supported by the majority within my community. I think it is a fair budget, it will grow the community, and it will ensure that northerners have access to services that they rely on. I think it maps the way for a credible balancing of our budget.