Mr ENTSCH (Leichhardt-Chief Opposition Whip) (11:59): We have heard a lot over the last couple of weeks about the budget-and there is certainly no hiding the fact that Labor’s financial and budgetary management is in total chaos. We have heard all the figures: total gross debt to breach the $300 billion ceiling, record net debt of $192 billion and more than $25 billion in higher taxes over the next four years.
But, as distressing as these figures are, when considering our country’s future, today I want to focus on what they will mean to the people of Leichhardt-what they will mean to our frontline services and what they will mean to growth and jobs in Cairns, Cape York and of course in the Torres Strait.
My first area of concern-and I have a number of them to share with you today-is the impact of the budget on education, specifically tertiary education. James Cook University is a world-class facility with campuses split between Townsville and Cairns. The vice-chancellor, Sandra Harding, recently contacted me to outline exactly how this government’s $3.8 billion in cuts will affect universities and student support.
Local students already pay more for their education than those in many other countries-more than 80 per cent of full-time undergraduates have to find a job; around 17 per cent said they regularly went without food and other necessities because they could not afford them. These cuts mean greater hardships for students, particularly those from low-SES backgrounds and regional areas such as Leichhardt, at a time when student finances are already under severe pressure.
In addition, quality is at the very core of Australia’s position as a provider of higher education. To compromise quality is to compromise our third-largest export industry at a time when we should be looking at how Australia can cement its position as an educator for the Asia century. This is particularly relevant to Cairns. We are perfectly positioned geographically for a strong relationship with China and, with the start of direct China-Cairns flights last year, we are now firmly on their cultural and tourism radar. Therefore, tertiary education is not an area that can be compromised.
My second concern relates to the controls of our borders. When the coalition left government in 2007-
A division having been called in the House of Representatives-
Sitting suspended from 12:02 to 12:16
Mr ENTSCH: I will continue my contribution on my second concerns, about the control of our borders. When the coalition left government in 2007 we had fixed this problem: there were fewer than half a dozen boats over five years. Under Labor, the number of illegal arrivals by boat has increased to more than 2,000 per month. As of 10 May, more than 23,000 people were either in the detention network or on bridging visas in the community. Not only can Labor not control our borders; they also cannot control the detention centres where they are putting these people. The centres are bursting at the seams because of this failed policy.
You may have heard over the weekend of an escape of seven detainees from the Scherger Immigration Detention Centre, near Weipa on Cape York, in my electorate. These seven detainees, aided and abetted by five other individuals, were able to escape over the fence of the high-security Scherger detention centre. One made his way to Weipa township, where he was arrested. Six were actually able to board a commercial flight from Weipa to Cairns, where they were arrested after they had booked into the local backpackers. It sounds like a movie plot, but in reality it is extremely serious and illustrates the absolute failure of the Gillard government’s immigration policy.
On the subject of border security, defence is of course closely tied to it. In the recent Defence White Paper, Scherger Air Force Base-the site of that detention centre-was identified as being in a prime position to support Joint Strike Fighter operations. It is of little surprise that it was recently revealed that the Department of Defence had vehemently opposed the use of Scherger as a prison farm, if you like.
The white paper also revealed plans to replace the Armidale patrol boats and the Navy’s two large replenishment ships, which were touted as projects to save Australia’s shipbuilding industry, and identified opportunities for closer relations with our Asian and Pacific neighbours. As with the educational opportunities for foreign students, Cairns is perfectly positioned to fulfil these requirements. We have in HMAS Cairns a well-equipped base with potential for expansion. Its commanding officer and the Chamber of Commerce and Advance Cairns are keen to see these opportunities embraced. Unfortunately, as you would have guessed, Mr Deputy Speaker, there is nothing in the budget for these initiatives. Even more unfortunately, the shipbuilding industry that we actually had in Cairns was destroyed under this government. It had actually built patrol boats and hydrographic ships in the past and had serviced them. It was given a contract in 2007, only to have it revoked. As a consequence our shipbuilding capacity was absolutely decimated.
My fourth issue relates to the National Broadband Network. No policy has been more overpromised and underdelivered than the NBN. Even as Labor boasts its NBN projects, the 2013-14 budget is an admission that the projects are failing. Look at the rollout schedule. Work has started in south Cairns. In the coastal communities to the north of Cairns work is scheduled to start within three years except for the tourism hub of Port Douglas. I say ‘scheduled’ because there is more than a degree of scepticism in relation to these commitments.
However, the area that has the greatest need of high-speed efficient and reliable broadband, most of Cape York and the Torres Strait, is not even on the schedule. Residents in regional and remote areas of Leichhardt need this. They struggle already with access to reliable telecommunications, radio communications and digital television. Their schools, hospitals and businesses and community groups should not be disadvantaged further compared to their metropolitan counterparts.
The fifth area important to mention relates to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. We know that Australia needs a new system of support for people with disability where the individual is at the centre and in charge. I have spoken in favour of the NDIS in this place. However, at the end of the day this is an insurance policy and it needs to be paid for. The coalition has supported the government’s proposed increase in the Medicare levy but the government must also outline how the remaining 60 per cent funding shortfall will be provided. This budget fails to achieve that.
We also continue to wait for more detail about the NDIS-for example, the assessment criteria, the differences between inherited and acquired disability, the lack of support for people over the age of 65. The last one is starting to really raise some serious concerns in my electorate. People over the age of 65 are still expected to contribute through their Medicare levy but they cannot expect to get any services. I find it quite amazing that we are discriminating against people, at this time and place, on the basis of their age.
All these are legitimate questions that currently remain unanswered for people with disability and the organisations that support them. It is interesting that a constituent of mine, Kel Chambers, heard that around 1,000 public servants will be required to administer the scheme from Canberra. Kel is legitimately concerned about the efficiency of this, given the federal government’s track record with the home insulation program, better schools program, management of Australia’s borders and the like.
As for our agricultural industry, after five long years of neglect and anti-agricultural policies and no vision for the sector, Labor’s only solutions are band aids. In my region, the northern cattle producers and the dairy industry are all experiencing major profitability issues. Graziers I have spoken to are facing some very challenging options as a result of Labor’s knee-jerk banning of live export trade in 2011, compounded by the drought in regional Queensland. We have something like up to two million head of cattle in limbo that have now become either too heavy to be exported or in some cases too emaciated to be moved as they starve due to lack of feed. The grass growth is now slowing down as we are coming into the colder months and it will not be too long before the 2013 calf drop which is going to exacerbate the problem even further. We certainly do not want to see these cattle being shot in the paddocks as is already starting to happen. Already this is becoming an animal welfare issue of massive proportions in its own right.
Unfortunately, all Labor can come up with in the budget is farm finance loans and drought assistance, basically robbing Peter to pay Paul with funds sourced from redirected Caring for our Country. There are no initiatives to improve farm profitability. Despite all of the government’s rhetoric for the Asian century, there is no initiative in the budget that will help agriculture capitalise on the trade opportunities in our northern neighbours.
Another area that that is highly relevant in my electorate is tourism. You may remember that in last year’s budget I was very concerned about the increases in passenger movement charges and the cuts to Customs affecting our visitor processing capacity. We are now seeing the fallout from this. The PMC or tourism departure tax will generate more than a billion dollars a year and nearly 1.4 million visitors will sit in the arrivals hall queue for more than an hour. Is this the way we want to welcome visitors to Cairns international airport? I would have to suggest that the answer would have to be absolutely not.
The Gillard government also promised in 2010 to spend $10 million a year on tourism grants. But they are set to break yet another promise because less than $25 million of the $40 million allocated is to be delivered before the election. How many tourism ventures or accommodation houses in Far North Queensland could have benefited from refurbishment or expansion yet have not been able to get access to these funds? What a waste. We need a new approach to tourism, a government that wants to enable not subsidise, a government that sees the value of marketing our country overseas and a government that does not push tourism down with excessive bureaucracy or burden operators with a carbon tax.
Finally, these concerns are very close to my heart. I have to highlight a number of issues under the umbrella of health. You have heard me speak many times in this place about the tuberculosis issue. In this budget the government was given the opportunity to provide Queensland Health with the $24 million it owes the Cairns Base Hospital for the treatment of tuberculosis of PNG nationals and to look at reopening the Saibai and Boigu clinics. Unfortunately there is no funding whatsoever to pay their debts in this regard. The fallout from this government’s failure to pay these bills is now being seen with the death four weeks ago of an Australian Torres Strait Islander in Cairns Base Hospital. Twenty four million dollars should have been spent on frontline services, recruitment and retention of qualified and experienced staff and on outreach programs in our regional and remote areas. Unfortunately our health services were denied that opportunity, and I hold Minister Plibersek and Senator McLucas responsible for the death of this Mrs Mareta Wosomo-it was totally preventable and should never have happened.
I am also disappointed to see little in the way of support for mental health services. I recently intervened on two occasions where young people with serious mental health challenges were about to be put into a totally inappropriate environment. There is an urgent need for a new approach for the funding and provision of mental health services in Cairns and in Far North Queensland. We have in headspace, Time Out House, the Carers’ Hub and the Clubhouse some excellent programs that target different age groups and complement each other perfectly.
Many small businesses and operators that I have spoken to are looking for a game changer that will lessen red tape burdens and boost our economy. The coalition certainly has that plan. The words of opposition leader Tony Abbott in his budget reply were:
A stronger economy is the key to almost everything we wish for as a nation: it means more jobs, higher wages, greater government revenue, better services and, ultimately, stronger and more cohesive communities.
The coalition stands ready to end the chaos of Labor and to provide a strong, stable and accountable government that the people of Leichardt need and certainly deserve.
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