Standing up for Canberra

Budget Reply 2011-12

I was very proud to be able to sit in the chamber for my first budget as a member of this parliament and government and listen to the Treasurer deliver a strong budget that will deliver so much opportunity for so many Australians. It is a budget true to the values of the Labor Party—true to our commitment to education, to training and skills, to better public infrastructure, to better health care and to support for families. It continues our commitment to the dignity of work and making sure that all Australians are given to the right tools, the right incentives and the right opportunities to succeed. It is a good Labor budget that makes the difficult and challenging decision to keep our economy strong while ensuring that those who need assistance are not left behind. The budget builds on Labor's strong economic record and will ensure that we are back in the black by 2012-13. It is good for Australia and it is good for Canberra. I am very proud of this budget.

I am a person deeply committed to education. As I have mentioned time and again, I believe that education holds the answer to many of society's problems. It is, as I have said before, the great empowerer. It transforms a person. It not only provides a means to make a living but also creates a positive identity and a sense of purpose. I was therefore very pleased to see that this budget includes such a strong focus on education, particularly in the provision of skills and trades. I have been a strong advocate of vocational and trade education since the late 1980s, when I was president of the student union at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. The RMIT is the oldest workers college in the world and has a long and proud tradition of educating carpenters, electricians, plumbers, engineers and architects to name just a few of its streams.

Unfortunately, vocational and trades education was neglected under the Howard government, which has resulted in the massive skills shortage that we currently face in this nation, a skills shortage that left unchecked could impact on Australia's productivity. It was not that long ago that I spoke in this place about the difficulty of getting a tradesperson in Canberra and the impact that this was having on the economy and growth of this city. In fact, I was reminded about the cost of Canberra's skills shortages when we called in a plumber on Saturday. He was there for 15 minutes and we were charged $440.

The budget includes over $500 million for a new Workforce Development Fund to provide funding for training and workforce development in areas of both current and future need. Under this program, business and professional associations will be able to apply for funding, ensuring that training is driven by the needs of the workforce, creating a direct link between training, workforce development and growth. It is expected that this fund will deliver 100,000 new training places over four years. This budget also invests over $100 million to help mentor apprentices through their training. This important program stems from the findings of the Apprenticeships for the 21st Century expert panel, which highlighted the need to improve apprentice retention. Currently only 48 per cent of apprentices complete their training, and retention is particularly difficult in the first year. This program is aimed at providing the right guidance and mentoring to young apprentices to make sure they understand and can benefit from the opportunities of learning a trade—opportunities I strongly underscored to the bricklayers I recently met at CITEA, in the electorate of my colleague the member for Fraser. As I said, they will be the self-employed millionaires of the future. If nothing else, Saturday's experience affirmed that. The program will also provide targeted mentoring to particularly vulnerable groups who face additional barriers to participation, such as Indigenous Australians and people from a remote or regional area.

CITEA trains all sorts of apprentices, some from difficult backgrounds who have faced many challenges. CITEA's staff know firsthand the difficulties these apprentices face and the challenges they must still overcome. However, they also know the changes that can happen in someone's life when they learn a trade and how it can transform a person and give them purpose. That is why the apprentices and staff I met at CITEA were very encouraged by the focus on trades and skills in this budget—in particular, the mentoring package—because it will mean they will have more support to continue the great work they are already doing.

This skills package also includes $100 million to develop a new apprenticeship model to deliver highquality skills more quickly and a $281 million support package for additional tax-free payments to encourage apprentices in critical trades. The $1,700 bonus is expected to support 200,000 apprentices over four years. In all, over 4,000 apprentices in my own electorate of Canberra may benefit from these investments in their skills.

This budget also continues Labor's proud heritage of delivering quality health care to all Australians. We were, after all, the party that introduced a universal healthcare system to this country with Medibank. We are investing $2.2 billion in mental health care over five years, and we are doing this because we recognise that nearly all Australians either will suffer from a mental illness or will know someone who suffers from a mental illness at some point in their lives. This package will reform a system that is, at times, driven by crisis. The package will now focus on early intervention and prevention. We are investing an additional $1.5 billion of new money into mental health, which complements our recent measures, including $443 million to tackle the problem of suicide. Our package includes $492 million for prevention and early intervention services for children and $220 million to improve access to the primary healthcare system for people with mental illness.

One in four Australians aged between 16 and 24 will experience a mental illness or substance abuse disorder, but only 25 per cent of these people will access help. This is why we are investing in the continued sustainability and expansion of the Headspace program. By 2015-16 there will be 90 Headspace sites, meaning that thousands of young Australians will not have to deal with this crisis alone. It is estimated that at its full capacity 72,000 young Australians will be helped through Headspace each year—a huge figure. I am proud that this government is continuing Labor's tradition in health care, in this case the development of a national mental health system.

This is a budget that also helps small business. There are approximately 2.7 million small businesses in Australia, accounting for around 96 per cent of Australian business. Up until August last year I ran one of those businesses, so I know firsthand the pressures and challenges faced by people in small business. That is why this government will make changes to allow small business to claim up to $5,000 as an immediate tax deduction for motor vehicles acquired in 2012-13. The government will also reduce payas-you-go instalments for 2011-12 for the majority of small businesses. This will have the benefit of freeing up cash flow for 2.7 million small businesses. As a former small business owner, I can attest that this development is most welcome. This budget also provides $7.1 million to continue the Small Business Support Line. This line has already received 30,000 calls and emails and is widely appreciated by small business owners.

Earlier this month I held my first free forum on how to start your own small business, because during my 10 years in business I was constantly asked how to go about setting one up. The forum gave me the opportunity to outline the basic steps. During the forum, potential small business owners were also linked with mentors and support services. In my discussions with those who attended, I found that they were very pleased with the actions of this government in providing support to them.

This is also a budget that continues this government's commitment to supporting the development of our near neighbours. Two-thirds of the world's poor live in our region. Eighteen of our nearest 20 neighbours are developing countries. Apart from the strong moral imperative to help those less fortunate than ourselves, it is also in our national interest. By ensuring that our neighbours have access to food and clean water, to health care and to education, we build trading partners and help to combat regional instability and terrorism. For all of those reasons, this government is committed to helping those in extreme poverty. This budget includes $1.9 billion over four years for new measures. This includes $492.8 million to expand Australia's development partnership with Indonesia, $124.5 million to improve enrolment and completion rates in education in the Pacific islands and $433.1 million to improve water sanitation and hygiene internationally but with a particular focus on the AsiaPacific. We do this in spite of the call from those opposite, because we know it is in Australia's interests and that it is the right thing to do.

Finally, I could not leave my speech here on the budget without addressing some of the statements made by those opposite, in particular the calls to slash and burn the Public Service. I said in my first speech in this chamber that I would defend Canberra and those Canberrans who dedicate their lives to serve their country and to deliver critical services. I said in my first speech that public service should be lauded, not derided. The member for North Sydney continues to talk about the impact of this budget on families but so glibly ignores the impact of the opposition's policies on 12,000 Public Service families, many of them in Canberra. It is as if public servants are not people—as if they are not mothers or fathers or sisters or brothers. The fact is that federal Labor continues to provide a stable employment base across the Commonwealth Public Service despite the challenging global economic conditions and unprecedented national disasters. Labor is still on track to return the budget to surplus in 2012-13. So ill-considered are the opposition's policies on the public service, they cannot even get the numbers right. The member for North Sydney claims that the Public Service has increased by 20,000 under the Labor government; the truth is that it is less than half that figure.

When the member for North Sydney talks about an organisation that delivers the best services to our citizens, and supports the activities of Australians across our country and around the world, he has a responsibility to get his numbers right. To so recklessly condemn 12,000 families to unemployment —and to seem to do so with such little concern and inaccurate figures—makes me wonder how he expects to run this economy. He is a risk to Canberra and a risk to Australia.

This budget is a strong budget that delivers on key reforms to health and education and to the structure of the economy. Most importantly, it is a Labor budget that is good for Australia and good for Canberra. It is the right budget for its time and I commend it to the House.

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