Mr RAMSEY (Grey–Government Whip) (16:47): I am very pleased to be speaking on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2017-18 and related bills and supporting the government’s budget. Just as she leaves the chamber, I refer to some of the things that the member for Jagajaga raised, particularly her indignant response to the view that the NDIS was not fully funded in the past by her government. Just repeating something that is not true often enough does not make it true, Member for Jagajaga; in fact, it reinforces the misleading statement in the first place. What you say could be given some weight if you could find a single reputable economist who would back that point of view, if you could find anyone in the free press who writes on economic and parliamentary government matters to agree with that point of view or if you could find anyone in the NDIS sector, in the disability sector, who agrees with that point of view. There is no support for that point of view. It is widely known that the NDIS was not properly funded. There was a black hole, and this government has had to face up to that issue and deal with it, just as we have had to deal with other issues that we do not particularly like.
The failure of our savings measures getting through the Senate has been a great frustration to the government. We do not want to raise taxes. We want to make Australia a low tax society. Yet we are faced with a situation where we can either govern responsibly or keep plunging Australia further and further into debt, not only placing that debt upon future generations but threatening the very basis on which we operate in this economic world-and that is our AAA credit rating. This rating not only gives great benefit to the Australian government; it also gives great benefit to Australian businesses. All of those things are important and they cannot be glossed over. So we have taken the responsible path and legislated for some cuts to various government payments but also, to balance the budget, to raise some extra taxes, most notably the levy on banks and, of course, the ½ per cent increase in the Medicare levy. It is responsible and pragmatic government, and that is what Australians expect governments to do: to govern responsibly and pragmatically.
The NDIS, as a result of the legislation that will be introduced in this House, I presume, in the next day or so, will be fully funded, as long as enough people in the Senate agree with the government’s point of view. I certainly hope that will be the case, because that is what the sector is calling for.
We have addressed the issue of the blowout in demand on the higher education budget by making adjustments to HECS. This is, once again, in response to something that happened under the former government, which uncapped university places. Of course, this is an unrestricted line of government funding: the more students in university, the more the taxpayer will pay. It is good to have people in university-there is no argument from this government-but there are considerable benefits that come to those people that complete university degrees, so we have asked them for a slightly higher contribution. But they can borrow every cent, and if they never earn above a certain level, $42,000 a year, they will never pay it back-the best loan of their life.
Most significantly, we have delivered the true Gonski. When we talk about the unfairness of budgets that come from the other side, what is unfair from their point of view is that we have delivered on the things that they only wished they could do. We have actually done them. This is what really sticks in their craw: we have actually done what they wanted to do but were unable to deliver. David Gonski has come on board and said this is the true Gonski-this is true needs-based funding. It is absolutely demonstrated that 99 per cent of schools in Australia will be better off. We are ironing out the glitches and getting rid of the 27 different secret agreements that were made around Australia, and we are still on track to balance the budget by 2021. It is responsible management.
From a localised point of view, there are quite a few issues that cut across my electorate. Coming from an electorate like Grey means there are not many issues in this place that do not influence us one way or another. Specifically, I welcome the commitment from the government of $110 million for the solar thermal storage project in Port Augusta. This is a project that I have been working very hard to land for Port August for quite some considerable amount of time, and I was very pleased in the election period to be able to announce that it was the government’s intention to back a solar thermal project in Port Augusta. The $110 million low-interest loan specifically delivers on that process, and I will be looking forward to it. There are two main contenders at this stage, it must be said, vying to win the majority of that money.
The government has also made a commitment to a study of pumped hydro in the Port Augusta region. This is an artificial hydro system, if you like, but it provides the one thing that South Australia really desperately needs in our electricity market at the moment, and that is storage. The state government continues to approve new renewable energy projects around the state, and I support renewable energy, but I do not support any new projects unless they include storage. Storage is the golden issue. In fact, it is the technology that we have a chance of leading the world in, because South Australia, unfortunately, is the most needy state in the world for energy storage at the moment. Delivering about 41 per cent of our electricity by renewable means, which has effectively destroyed the baseload generators’ business case, means that in fact our electricity grid is so unstable at the moment that we have a higher demand for storage than any other economy in the world.
I am very pleased to provide the information to my local councils-I have 23 of them-that the freeze on the financial assistance grants indexation from the Commonwealth has been lifted. This is something that councils have been lobbying for, long and hard, for quite some time. The savings have been made in those areas, and they are structural now, but the freeze has been lifted, so they can expect those payments to increase in the future.
Especially pleasing from a South Australian point of view is the reinstatement for two years of the supplementary local road funding program-a sum of $20 million per year for the two years. This is a program that had its roots right back in the early and middle years of the Howard government. It was seen that the formula that distributed funds for local roads meant a deficiency in South Australia, where we were receiving around 5½ per cent of the funds nationally but had about 7½ per cent of the population and 11 per cent of the road length, so a special payment was made. Unfortunately, the last budget delivered by the Labor government made no future commitment to this program and so there was no new decision made by the incoming government, that was left, obviously, with huge debts and deficits to deal with. The fund just expired, but that left South Australian councils exposed. I thank the member for Barker and the member for Boothby, in particular, for their staunch efforts in lobbying for this money to come to South Australian councils and to even things up a bit.
The doctors in my electorate have been lobbying hard and long to remove the freeze that was originally put in place by the Labor government on the Medicare payments. Once again, this is an area where there has now been a saving, and it is a saving which has become institutionalised-it is built into the system. So the time is right to lift that freeze. But let me say in its defence that we had been told repeatedly that doctors would desert bulk-billing. Of course, through this entire period the rates have tended to rise, but I think they have gone about as far as they can go so it is right and proper that the freeze should be lifted.
In the same area, in pharmacy: under the Sixth Pharmacy Agreement there was an arrangement made that, should prescription numbers fall, the Commonwealth would bear some of the strain with the pharmacists. That has been honoured, and the result of our decisions in pharmacy will lead to an extra $1.8 billion being cut away from the cost of medication for the people of Australia and to the registration of new and developmental drugs. So there have been great wins there.
I am very pleased to be able to tell the people of Grey that the government is investing $472 million in a Regional Growth Fund. Most importantly, that leads to another $200 million into the Building Better Regions Fund. Building Better Regions has superseded Building Stronger Regions. It is something that has been very keenly sought after in Grey and we have been quite successful in attracting funding. The last two rounds brought over $25 million into the electorate. So we are very pleased, of course, that that fund will continue and that we will be able to bid from those funds for the very good projects that come out of a diverse and interesting electorate like Grey. There is also another $272 million going into a major projects fund for projects that need an injection of over $10 million. I am sure we will see some very good projects proposed out of the Grey electorate to focus on that money as well.
I had a significant number of letters from people who work in the Meals on Wheels organisations. They were concerned about their future funding, and of course they are very pleased that this budget confirms the Commonwealth’s ongoing commitment in this area, as it does with a number of other support packages and the Regional Assessment Service.
I must say that business has warmly welcomed the new tax rates-the reduction in company tax rates which come into effect from 1 July-and the recognition that small businesses are not necessarily those with turnovers of just under $2 million. Those categories will rise to $10 million and then eventually to $15 million in 2018-19. Once again, that is a very popular decision with businesses out there. Many have reported to me that they have used it already, that they intend to keep using it and that it has led to extra investment, which leads to extra production and better outcomes for Australia all the way round.
There are also a few reforms in the social services area. As the federal representative of Ceduna, it gives me great pleasure that Ceduna was the first town in Australia to step up to the plate and say that it was willing to trial the cashless debit card. That trial is going exceedingly well. I told the people of Ceduna right at the beginning of the process, ‘It is highly likely that the eyes of Australia will turn towards you and look for leadership.’ They supplied that leadership and now, after developing that model in Ceduna and having ironed out a few of the glitches and bugs around it, we are looking to extend it to a further two communities across Australia. Within my electorate, at least one has already expressed great interest, but I know that we may be joining a very long line.
It is very interesting that the cashless debit card is now designated to be used in managing welfare difficulties in other areas-and, of course, in this area I am talking to the imminent drug testing of those who are repeat failures in showing up for their work commitments or consultation commitments with job service providers and Centrelink. There will be those who will say, ‘You’re picking on the vulnerable,’ and ‘They take drugs for all kinds of reasons,’ but one thing we do know is that, when someone starts down the trail of taking drugs, particularly with some of the very addictive and dangerous drugs like ice, we not only do the country a tremendous favour but we also do them an enormous favour if we become involved, intervene and save them from themselves and try to reroute their lives and provide new direction. This drug testing will identify those people and then we can apply ourselves to making sure that they do not go further down that route, because it not only affects them but also their families. And we know that intergenerational disadvantage is just that: it is intergenerational.
All of those things in the budget are very good. I am very proud of the budget. It has been very well received in my electorate, and I look forward to continuing to speak about it over the next few weeks and months.