Hansard Transcript, May 28, Budget Impact Tour response
Posted May 29, 2014
CATHY McGOWAN (Indi) (17:01): I rise today to talk about the 2014-15 budget, and I acknowledge my colleagues in the room. I begin by summarising the results of my budget impact tour, the process I have undertaken to listen to my constituents during this budget process. It is one of the delights of being an independent that I am able to do this. Since the budget was delivered, I, my staff and a large group of volunteers have been travelling around Indi undertaking a budget impact tour.
We have held talks and listened to the views of people and interest groups in all parts of the electorate, asking them for their three budget priorities and suggestions for revenue raising. We have seen more than 300 people face-to-face, and 250 people have contacted the office by phone, email, social media and website.
As I speak, a team of volunteers are recording this data, tracking where the respondents live, what topics they are particularly concerned about, and their ideas for changes and improvements to the budget. I anticipate that the full detailed report will be available in early June.
In the meantime, I am using the material gathered during this tour to strongly represent my constituents in this place. I am making speeches, moving amendments to budget bills, and negotiating with parliamentary colleagues, staff and crossbenchers.
So what have the people of Indi been saying? We have heard positive things about the budget, especially about the government's move to reduce debt and the deficit and to build strong road infrastructure. Generally speaking, the people of Indi believe something had to be done. They were willing to tighten their belts, and they recognised the role—indeed, the responsibility—of a new government to review long-term strategy and set direction.
They appreciate that the government delivered on all their election commitments to the people of Indi: for planning for the Bright hospital, for roads in Indigo Shire and, together with the MP for Farrer, for funding for the cardiac laboratory at Albury Wodonga Health. They also acknowledge government funding for their election commitments to the Roads to Recovery Programme, Bridges for Renewal, $100 million for mobile phone coverage, $100 million for agriculture research and development, inland freight rail planning money, and further funding for mental health and Headspace.
However, rural people do understand money. They understand budgets and they understand the need to economise. There was no shortage of alternatives and additions that people offered to me to increase the revenue side of the national budget.
But, like many other communities in Australia, a significant percentage of the people were disappointed in the budget. They thought it had an urban bias. They thought it failed to take account of circumstances in country areas and regional cities. They thought it fell heavily on the shoulders of the poor. And they thought it lacked a strategic vision for the future of the nation. They specifically mentioned the social impacts of the budget on low- and middle-income families, older people and especially young people seeking work.
This was because of the impact of the fuel excise, the GP co-payment, reduction in council funding, decreases to pensions, changes to Centrelink payments, long-term cost shifting in health and education funding, increasing defence spending, and the deregulation of university fees and the increase in costs to students.
These are serious concerns and I will be talking about these extensively with all my parliamentary colleagues, particularly those in the Senate. However, in this speech I would like to focus on the impact on rural and regional living and on young people. In country areas access to communication infrastructure is essential, and the government's telecommunications budget allocation failed to acknowledge the complexities for regional living.
Instead, NBN coverage and quality of coverage has been reduced. $100 million for mobile phone towers is not nearly enough. Research indicates that $100 million will at best only pay for an estimated 200-250 new or upgraded mobile sites across the whole country. In Indi alone, my local councils estimate that 200-250 mobile black spot towers are needed. Many of these are needed in areas severely impacted by the bushfires and many are needed for long-term safety of the residents.
Access to travel is also essential in country areas. The fuel excise will impact on all people who live in rural and regional Australia but particularly so on those who do not have access to public transport. To live their lives, to earn, to learn, to lift for the country, as the Treasurer has asked us, we must drive.
Constituents constantly told me that petrol is already more expensive in the country, and now it will be even more so. Access to a doctor is essential in rural areas and the GP co-payment adds to fees that many people in Indi already pay. The national bulk-billing average in Australia is 75 per cent and in many metropolitan areas it is 85 per cent. In Indi it is 65 per cent, which means that 35 per cent of people already pay large amounts of money to go to the doctor. So the compound effect of these fees—for GP visits, for medicines, for blood tests and for X-rays—will be significant, particularly for people on fixed incomes such as our older people.
In rural areas local government services are essential. The National Local Government Grants Program was designed specifically to make up the shortfall in funds rural and regional councils often have in their revenue stream. It enables them to provide services that equal their metro cousins. The freeze on indexation of the payments to councils will mean that rates will have to rise or services decrease. The importance of councils in rural and regional areas cannot be underestimated. While it is true that many in Indi accept that something had to happen, there was a strong consensus that from a social perspective the collective impact of these policies will impact most severely on rural and regional living.
Support for young people in rural and regional Australia is essential. Young people are the future of Australia and they are particularly the future for rural and regional Australia. Many of the young people I spoke to felt that the budget would not help them. They said they felt they were being blamed for not being able to get work, or blamed for not getting into further education. As one young woman said, 'I am trying, but it's so hard and it will be even harder with no money.' The cuts to education and to financial support for people under 30 on youth allowance and Newstart will have a significant impact on a whole generation of young country people.
Young people in Indi are not lazy. They do not want to be unemployed forever. They want to undertake education. There are just not enough local opportunities to earn and learn. Much of Indi has a youth unemployment rate of 17.5 per cent, which is 11.5 per cent higher than the average unemployment rate in this country. Many parts of Indi have no local further education options, and those that are there exist in the northern parts of the electorate. Altogether we have approximately 5,000 further education places. However, there are well and truly over 5,000 people already on Newstart or youth allowance in Indi.
This makes for a very difficult equation. How can we expect young people in Indi to earn or learn when there are insufficient jobs and insufficient education opportunities for them?
The options are limited. I believe the unintended consequences will be severe and long lasting, and I will be doing my very best to have this part of the budget changed. We need to support and encourage our young people to remain in rural and regional Australia, and we need to support and encourage their parents, their families, their friends, community organisations and businesses to create local jobs and education opportunities.
There are solutions to many of the issues identified, and many people in Indi were keen to be part of a national discussion. How do we grow the economic pie? How do we maintain a fair social welfare safety net? They said they were prepared to tighten their belts, even to pay more, if they had a sense that the budget would build a stronger and more resilient country.
A constituent in Wodonga—male, retired, over 60, reasonably well off, who owns his own home, whose children are all in jobs and who is still healthy—told me that last year he received an income of over $400,000 from his self-managed super fund, and he said: 'Cathy, I pay no income tax at all. That's just not right.' And I agree. He was one of a number of people who were happy to discuss with me how they personally would be willing to pay more for their fair share.
With this feedback, yesterday I moved an amendment to the debit tax levy that it be extended to 2020-21, as I too believe that people with more, such as me, should pay more. How disappointing it was that the government and opposition voted against this amendment.
In Indi, we listened, and we heard the diversity of voices that can be found across rural and regional Australia. Rural people do not like the ongoing blame game. They do not like hearing that it is always someone else's fault. They do not want to be told that they are untrustworthy or lazy or just too old. The resounding message from my budget impact tour was that people want their government to give them genuine leadership and vision, especially in rural and regional areas where they live. Australians are looking forward to a debt-free future, but not at the cost of a lost generation of rural youth, not at the cost of viable regional communities, not at the cost of equality and certainly not at the cost of disengagement from the political system.
I believe that many of the social aspects of this budget are unfair, especially for rural families. I also believe that this parliament has the knowledge and the talent to offer better, more fair alternatives.
To both sides in this public place: my constituents ask that you please stop focusing on the past, that you stop focusing on blame and negativity. It makes people feel disengaged from this place. It does not build this country. My constituents ask that we start working together—as, on both sides of the House, you proved today, to my enormous disappointment, you could come together and work to block my amendment in this House, which would have made more money available from those who are able to pay. My constituents ask that we work harder and we work better together for this country, because we know we can do better. We know we must do better.