A harmful and unfair Coalition Budget

Published on Wednesday, 24 May 2017 11:06

 

There are great challenges in this nation. Labor does what it can, and has done a remarkable job in recent times of tackling some of those enormous areas. But we cannot have the government spend four, five or six years spinning wheels and indulging in political game playing, trying to shark the credit for the things that Labor governments have done...

Mr Wilson (11:06am) — I am pleased to speak on the budget, without as much preparation as I perhaps would like. It is a budget that does not know whether it is Arthur or Martha. The previous speaker, the member for Fairfax, talked about the government's fiscal objectives and the way that it seeks to get back on some sort of responsible fiscal track. The projected surplus in the early years of the 2020s is minimal, to say the least. I guess we are going to see whether the government is able to achieve that. The reality is that since the Coalition came to government in 2013, on the back of what was described as a debt emergency, we have not seen any significant change in a positive direction as far as debt is concerned; in fact, we have seen debt blow out extraordinarily. The government talked at that time as though we were on the brink of some sort of fiscal apocalypse, and things have only got worse. And they have got worse in both directions. The government has not controlled spending and it has not taken advantage of the opposition's preparedness to look at sensible revenue measures.

For Western Australia, this is a budget of great disappointment. This is a government that claimed, under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, to be focused on infrastructure. I think Prime Minister Abbott described himself as seeking to be the 'infrastructure Prime Minister'. In the government's best year, as far as infrastructure spending is concerned, it has fallen below what the Labor Party delivered in its lowest-spending year. Nowhere is that more clear than in Western Australia. The budget does not provide one new dollar in infrastructure spending for Western Australia. What we have been able to achieve, and it really is something that the Western Australia community has achieved, is the return of $1.2 billion which was allocated to the Perth Freight Link and held over the people of Western Australia in a sort of 'fiscal hostage' manoeuvre. For a number of years we were told it was $1.2 billion for the Perth Freight Link or nothing. It was a project that was born out of the 2014 budget, the new Abbott government's first budget. It was a project that Western Australia had never asked for and that was not assessed by Infrastructure Australia until after it had been proposed. It had no environmental approvals and it had no detail beyond Stock Road. It was a project that would have done irreparable damage to precious wetlands in my community. We were told over and over again that it was $1.2 billion for that project or nothing. Of course, as I remarked the other day, it is funny what an election will achieve. We have seen a stark demonstration of the will of the people of Western Australia in relation to that project and in relation to policy across the board in my state.

Despite the threat by the Minister for Urban Infrastructure that those funds would not be forthcoming to a Western Australian state government for projects that Western Australians had determined were of importance to them, lo and behold, those funds have been handed over, and we are glad about that. In my electorate the projects include Community Connect South, which is the duplication of Armadale Road and the building of the North Lake Road bridge; the widening of the freeway northbound from Russell Road; and fixing the High Street-Stirling Highway intersection and the stretch of High Street west of Carrington Street.

All of these projects were identified by the incoming WA Labor government. They were campaigned on by me and my colleague the member for Burt. I am grateful to see that they will be delivered, but that is money that was allocated as far back as the 2014 budget. In fact, in the case of the upgrade of the High Street-Stirling Highway intersection, those funds were allocated by the federal Labor government in 2008. The member for Tangney was in here the other day banging on about why that project has taken so long. It took so long because between 2008 and the election earlier this year the Barnett government did nothing about it. Something will occur now, and that is fantastic.

Instead of seeing any new funds in infrastructure, which we desperately need, what the government has done—I can only assume under advice of Coalition members from Western Australia—is put $1.2 billion in the budget papers as a contingent liability for the next government that comes along, whoever that might be, and delivers on the Perth Freight Link. You can imagine how that has gone down in Western Australia. That has gone down like a lime and sulphur scone. We are not getting any new money for infrastructure. Instead, $1.2 billion is put there as a contingent liability for this ridiculous project that should never have been conceived and will never be proceeded with.

I do not know what it is contingent on. It might be contingent on the member for Tangney inventing a time machine or the people of Western Australia falling under a cloud of delusion, the likes of which seem to have bound up Coalition members from Western Australia. Those conditions are never going to come about, but it is bitter in the extreme to have there those $1.2 billion of funds, which we desperately need to address productivity obstacles or blockages and to address severe unemployment in Western Australia. Western Australia recently had the highest unemployment in the country and we are currently experiencing the highest underemployment on record.

The budget is disappointing in a number of other key areas. It is particularly disappointing in education. Western Australia is in a slightly anomalous position with regard to education because the former Barnett government was not interested in being part of needs based funding and it struck its own deal, so it is harder to assess what is going on in Western Australia compared to the rest of the country, where the Labor government came to arrangements with state governments about needs based funding over a period of time. We can now see that under the government's Gonski 2.0—or, as the member for Fairfax called it, two dot zero—Australian schools will have $22 billion less over 10 years and each school will have on average $2.4 million less.

In Western Australia the situation is bleak in a different way. The Barnett government struck its own deal with the Abbott-Turnbull government and it carried the basis of that funding deal in its own budget papers. The Barnett government knew that for the next four years it needed to have a figure based on what it expected the negotiation with the Commonwealth to deliver. That means that there will be a $650 million gap in Western Australia over the next four years. That is not a gap between this budget and what a federal Labor government would have delivered; that is a gap between what the Barnett government carried in its budget papers and what the current Turnbull government is going to give to WA. That is a $650 million black hole. It means that education for kids in my electorate and support for teachers in my electorate will be less than what it should be. I am the son of a teacher. My mum is 70 years old; she continues to work, teaching special needs kids. That is an area where you really see how needs based assistance can make a difference.

As most representatives would know, our schools vary. Our school education system compared to many other countries' is a good one, but there is great variance in primary and high schools across our electorates, which is generally related to socioeconomic circumstances. I can go—as I did at the end of last year, and recently in relation to ANZAC Day services—to school after school and get a sense of how the challenges are different, the capital resources are different and the needs are different. That is what needs based funding is all about, but the current proposition put forward by the government, as far as funding goes, is not going to get us to where we need to be. It is not going to get us to the point where inequality and disadvantage is being addressed through needs based funding so that intergenerational disadvantage does not continue and so that children who grow up facing disadvantage, whether it is socioeconomic or because they live with a disability, actually have the greatest possible opportunity to be involved in social and economic life in this country.

I was in the chamber earlier when the Treasurer was introducing the bills to do with the Medicare levy. It is cynical in the extreme for the government to tie its approach to the Medicare levy to the full funding of the NDIS. It is invidious for people who have waited for a long time for the NDIS, a great Labor reform, to be caught up in this kind of debate. The reality is that any government has the ability, out of consolidated revenue, to support the programs it wants to support in the way that it wants to support them. The government is giving $65 billion away in tax cuts; that is its choice. That is its program; it can make that argument. But, if it chose to give away a bit less of that money at a time when a program like the NDIS is being settled in, that funding would be available without recourse to the Medicare levy in the way that the government proposes to pursue it. That is a choice. Tying those things together is, essentially, a political manoeuvre, and that is a shame.

I conclude by looking at the kind of narrative that the government has tried to introduce around this budget, which is, essentially, to look at some of the big reforms that Labor secured in its last government—things like needs based funding and the NDIS. It is trying two kinds of slipperiness: one is to suggest that these things were always going to happen—that we all agreed about them and they were always going to happen. That is rubbish. Labor governments come in and they make change. In the last government, we introduced the NDIS, we introduced needs based funding, we introduced the NBN and we introduced an approach to deal with climate change. Those four things alone are more significant and more momentous than anything a Coalition government has done in living memory.

The people in this place like to look back at the time between 1996 and 2007 as a golden era of Coalition government. What did those 11 years produce? The GST.

A government member interjecting—

Mr JOSH WILSON: If you are behind the wheel of an economy that was set up by the profound economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating government, there is no great surprise that you reap the benefits. But what was done with those benefits? Nothing. A Labor government came in, and, in a relatively short time—too short—introduced reforms to do with some of the biggest challenges facing this country, reforms such as the NDIS, the NBN, an economy-wide program to tackle climate change, and needs based funding.

Now we have a Coalition government that pretends that it was always on board with those things and that those things were always going to happen—that is rubbish. Then it pretends that but for their excellent administrative capacity and funding know-how those things would not have happened—that is rubbish too. Those challenges are being settled, and they are going to take a Labor government to put them right, but there are further challenges ahead, and we cannot keep having this misconception perpetrated upon the Australian public.

There are great challenges in this nation. Labor does what it can, and has done a remarkable job in recent times of tackling some of those enormous areas. But we cannot have the government spend four, five or six years spinning wheels and indulging in political game playing, trying to shark the credit for the things that Labor governments have done and muddying the waters with facile and insubstantial arguments about money. We need to focus on the big picture. I am sorry that this budget is more smoke and mirrors than it could have been.

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