I rise today to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2013-2014 and related bills and on Labor's worthy amendments.
I have listened to a number of my colleagues speak on these bills over the last week, and I must say it has left me with feelings of utter despair. It was despair I felt as my colleagues pointed out the gross hypocrisy and dishonesty of those opposite in their approach to spending—most evident in their blatantly political injection of $8.8 billion into the Reserve Bank. It was despair I felt as my colleagues detailed the cuts to health and education—a flagrant breach of the coalition's pre-election promises not to cut health or education. It was despair I felt when the Deputy Leader of the Opposition detailed the cuts this government is making within the foreign affairs and international development portfolio, cuts that are hurting those most in need in our very own region—in Asia and the Pacific—despite this government's promise to make our region the focus of its international development policy.
There are a number of aspects of these bills that I would like to speak about today. The first is the $13.2 million being ripped from the health portfolio in this financial year. I am not the only one who recalls that prior to the election those opposite promised no cuts to health. On the eve of the election—1 September 2013, to be exact —then opposition leader, now Prime Minister Tony Abbott, appearing on the ABC's Insiders program said: And I want to give people this absolute assurance: no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no changes to pensions, and no changes to the GST.
But, since coming to power, the government's record in health has included: ripping $100 million from the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital; abolishing the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council; backflipping on the promise not to close any Medicare Locals; abolishing the expert panel on the marketing of infant formula; and placing the jobs of departmental staff at risk and moving those awaiting redundancy to a permanent departure lounge. Based on its record so far, it would appear that the Abbott government has no vision for the health portfolio other than to make cuts.
I would like to talk today about one of the cuts that has already been inflicted. Last Friday, after 48 years of providing frank and fearless advice to policymakers, the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia closed its doors for good. This closure came after the Assistant Minister for Health—the minister responsible for the preventative health of Australia— Minister Nash, inexplicably cut ADCA's funding late last year.
ADCA was the non-government national peak body representing the interests of the alcohol and other drugs sector. Established in 1966, it has provided a voice for those who work to reduce the harm caused by alcohol and other drugs for nearly half a century. ADCA was based in my electorate of Canberra, just a couple of kilometres from where we are right now, but it worked for the betterment of all Australians, as well as for our neighbours in Asia and the Pacific who can learn from our experience in this space.
Some of the services that had been provided by ADCA, which will now no longer be provided, include: National Drug Sector Information Service; the Register of Australian Drug and Alcohol Research; the National Inhalants Information Service; the drug database; Drugfields—a professional development, policy and practice information service for the Australian alcohol and drug sector; 'Update', an alcohol and other drugs information bulletin board; Drug Action Week, which is incredibly popular; 'Drug talk', an alcohol and other drugs discussion list; and, of course, their one-of-akind, incredible library of resources.
The decision to axe ADCA truly came out of the blue. Earlier last year, under the Labor government, ADCA received an assurance of its ongoing funding. And, on 14 October last year, Prime Minister Abbott wrote to ADCA and said, 'I look forward to working with you in the years ahead.' Just six weeks after the Prime Minister had written these words, ADCA was axed. Understandably, many have been wondering why.
Why, after nearly fifty years of representing the Alcohol and Other Drugs Sector, is this the only government which has decided it does not need ADCA's advice? Is it because ADCA's support of the Australia 21 report on the prohibition of illicit drugs was too progressive for this conservative government? Is it an internal political decision we do not understand —given former Liberal MP the Hon. Dr Mal Washer is ADCA's president and former Liberal senator, Senator the Hon. Gary Humphries, was a director? Is it some form of payback, because ADCA have been critical of the NSW and QLD Liberal state governments' response to alcohol induced violence? Did it have anything to do with the reported links between Minister Nash's now former chief of staff and the alcohol industry? The fact is we will continue to wonder, because this government has not given a reason.
Minister Nash first said ADCA had a history of financial mismanagement—which was proved completely untrue. She then said the work of its incredible resource library was duplicated, only to retract that statement. This library is the only resource of its kind in the world and it would seem it is destined for the shredder.
With the many, many cuts being inflicted by this government, it is easy to lose perspective, so let me reintroduce some sorely needed perspective. The government has saved around $1.5 million in annual funding by cutting ADCA. The estimated cost of just one Australian living with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder over their lifetime can be up to $15 million. That is 10 times the annual budget of ADCA.
As the member for Canberra, I am concerned about the 14 ADCA staff who are my constituents and who have now lost their jobs. I am concerned about the landlord who has lost a tenant and the local businesses which will lose a client. But I am even more concerned about the implications for the future health of our country and the region as a result of the axing of ADCA.
Another cut outlined in these bills that I would like to talk about today is the $11.5 million that has been ripped from the Building Multicultural Communities Program. The program provided oneoff grants to empower local multicultural communities to strengthen social cohesion and promote inclusion in diverse communities. Some of the community groups in Canberra that received grants under the former Labor government included the ACT Jewish Community, the Australian Chinese Culture Exchange and Promotion Association, the Bangladeshi Seniors Club, the Canberra Islamic Centre and the Spanish Speakers Association.
When the government announced that they were cutting funding from this program, these organisations were left in limbo. Would they receive the grants that they had applied for months before the election? We all know that grassroots community organisations like these run on the smell of an oily rag. These grants were a much needed injection of funds that would reinvigorate their work, and for months these organisations have been in the dark. To date, of the 29 community groups that were awarded grants in the ACT, only two have received their funding. Many have been told they will not be receiving their funding at all but might be eligible for compensation. Many more are still in the dark.
As recently as two weeks ago I received a phone call from a representative of one of these organisations who had been told she would receive her grant. Even though she keeps being reassured that it is going to be okay, will this actually occur? The stress this was causing her was evident. The decisions of this government are hurting those individuals and groups in our community who give up their time to ensure we live in a better, more inclusive society.
The 2013-14 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook papers clearly show that $11.5 million is being taken out of this program. I quote from the MYEFO papers: The Government will achieve savings of $11.5 million by not proceeding with funding for the Building Multicultural Communities programme, announced in 2013#14 Budget …
I am taking the time to point this out because, in defending this cut, Liberal senator for the ACT, Senator Sesejla, has told the community groups who have lost their funding that the grants were never funded. He said: They promised something they didn't have the money for. They didn't allocate the money for it.
He has repeated this claim again and again. He has accused Labor of handing out grants that there was no money for. I would like to say to Senator Seselja: if the money wasn't allocated, how are you able to make a $11.5 million saving by cutting the program? Senator Seselja has either been blatantly misleading the ACT community or he is too incompetent to read Labor's 2013-14 budget and the MYEFO document his own government prepared. Either way, he owes Canberrans an explanation.
So many of the cuts outlined in these bills have caused me concern, but perhaps what has caused me the most concern is the cuts to the Education portfolio. We all heard those opposite say before the election again and again that when it came to education they were on a unity ticket with Labor. Those are their words, not ours —a unity ticket. But following the election it is clear that nothing could be further from the truth.
Those opposite speak about the importance of vocational education in our schools. The Parliamentary Secretary for Education, Senator Ryan, has praised trade training centres for addressing skills shortages. He has also said that the government needs to consider 'innovative and practical approaches to deliver trade qualifications in schools'. The Assistant Minister for Education, the member for Farrer, has declared the importance of vocational education in schools, saying: … there's not enough “try a trade” for those kids in school so they can see what it is they want to do.
She went on to say: … what we need to do is make sure that from a pathway in say Year ten, they're directed into a career in the trade that suits them …
If those opposite really believe this, why have they cut an incredibly successful vocational education initiative in the trade training centres? In government, Labor funded 510 trades training centres in schools around Australia, with more than 60 per cent in regional areas.
I have visited the trade training centres in my electorate and I know what an incredibly valuable asset they are. I have visited the building and construction trade training centre at St Mary MacKillop College, where I spoke to students who have told me that they have stayed in school because of that trade training centre. I spoke to students who travel for over two hours every day from Cooma to Canberra so that they can go to school at MacKillop because of that trade training centre.
Just two weeks ago I visited Wanniassa High School, which had experienced severe flood damage as a result of the storms here in Canberra. While I was inspecting the damage, Principal Karen Nagorcka was most keen to show me their new trade training centre—still under construction—which had miraculously escaped the damage. I have visited the commercial kitchen trade training centre at St Clare's College, just down the road on Canberra Avenue, where students are able to commence their qualifications in hospitality without leaving school, so they can keep studying languages and English while gaining the qualifications they need for their chosen trade.
Now, more than ever, Australia needs to give every Australian student every opportunity to secure a highskill, high-wage job of the future. The decision by the Abbott government to cut trade training centres is disgraceful and short-sighted. It shows that they have no understanding of the skills and qualifications that young Australians require for the future. It shows that they have no plan for jobs in Australia, because if they did they would understand the importance of trades. It shows that, despite the talk, those opposite do not care about vocational education.
Just days before the election, the now Prime Minister promised on national television that under an Abbott government there would be no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS. But here in these bills—the very first opportunity the Abbott government have had to present bills concerning money supply—we see cuts to health, cuts to education. We see broken promises. We see that this is not the government they promised to be. Before the election, Prime Minister Abbott promised he would lead a government of 'no surprises and no excuses'. Here are the surprises, clearly set out for us. I would like to know what his excuse is.