Training, education and healthcare challenges for the Griffith electorate

I spoke in the Parliament about the challenges facing the Griffith electorate in the months and years ahead.

"Kids are not getting the same opportunities, and one really important thing that we can do to make sure that young people are able to be equipped for the jobs of the future is to really focus on education. That means dealing with vocational education and training. That means doing something about the funding arrangements for schools, which are so unfair and unrealistic in this country and are leading to some schools been much worse off than others, when that just should not be the case. It means doing something about access to university, and not making it harder for people to go to university if that is what they want to do. And, at the very, very front end, it means a focus on early learning, education and care."

Read my speech below.

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (12:04):  I rise to take part in the address-in-reply to the Governor-General's speech today. It is important, in looking forward to what should be done in this term of the parliament, to reflect on where we are now.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing in this parliament is a government that is led by someone who lacks authority amongst his own party. The Prime Minister is someone with very little authority amongst the coalition, as is quite obvious from the marriage equality issue, where the Prime Minister—despite his previous commitment to having a free vote and to changing the law to allow for marriage equality—has been unable to deliver that; the Prime Minister seeming to have been comprehensively rolled in his own party room in relation to taking real action on climate change; and of course, just this week, the Prime Minister's efforts in relation to the extradition treaty.

So we have a Prime Minister who lacks authority and who is unable to lead his own party, let alone the nation. And behind him what do we see? We see dysfunctional and divided Liberals who are much more interested in fighting amongst themselves than they are in pursuing the national interest. That is really regrettable and, unfortunately, does not bode well for good government in this country.

On the other side of the aisle, we have a Labor Party opposition that is incredibly united. We are an opposition team who are looking together with one set of values and one set of voices for the future of this nation and what needs to be done in relation to this nation's future—and there are a lot of challenges facing our nation. Inequality is at 75-year highs. Wages growth is in the doldrums. It is the slowest it has been since the wage price index started being kept in 1997. We have high unemployment but also very high underemployment, with 1.1 million Australians unable to get the additional work that they want even though they may already have some hours every week. Those challenges are contributing to, as I said, increasing inequality. We have a situation now where the income distribution is getting more and more spread out and where more and more of the nation's income and wealth is accumulating at the top of the income and wealth distribution, so we are seeing very, very broad spreads between people who are very poor and people who are very wealthy.

We are also in a situation where we are facing quite significant challenges in democracy, where we have a nation of people who do not really have faith in political institutions anymore, do not really trust democracy and, even worse, do not really see the relevance of politics to their lives. That is a real problem, of course, because politics is where decisions are made about the allocation of resources, the raising of revenue and the creation of rules that determine the outcomes for our country and have real impacts on people's day-to-day lives, whether it is family tax benefit cuts, the way that child care works, the fiscal conditions and what they mean for the economy more broadly, something as simple as how schools are funded—that is not really that simple, but it sounds simple—what resources are allocated to hospitals, or how much attention is given to reducing and eliminating family violence. All of these things are affected by decisions that are made in politics by elected representatives. So a lack of trust in political institutions and a cynicism about politics means it becomes too easy for people to withdraw from, disconnect from and ignore politics altogether. But the problem with doing that is that, if you vacate the field of politics, you are leaving it to someone else. You are leaving it up to other people to make the decisions that will affect your life and your family's lives. That is why it is really important, now more than ever, that people do not just disengage from politics but do take an interest, get involved and work on strengthening institutions, not walk away from them.

Labor have a clear set of values that we articulate consistently and have done over many decades of our existence. We certainly change and adapt with the times—we are a party of progress—but we are very clear about the fact that we stand for community, we stand for empowering working-class households, we stand for empowering middle-class households and we stand for reducing inequality and not accepting the idea that somehow increasing inequality is just a law of nature—because it quite clearly is not. It is a function of the decisions that are made in politics and elsewhere, and, if that is true, the decisions that are made in politics and elsewhere can turn increasing inequality around and can deal with the disadvantage that is being created amongst a lot of Australian households.

To give you an example of these issues, something that is highly affected by politics and by the decisions that are made about the allocation of resources, the rules that are made and the revenue that is raised is training and skills in this country. Everyone in this parliament, I suspect, is well aware that the bottom is falling out of apprenticeships in Australia, and that is certainly the case in my electorate. It is a really important challenge for my electorate. In fact, apprentice numbers have declined by one-third in my electorate since the government was first elected in 2013. Since the current coalition government was elected in 2013, apprentice numbers have dropped by one-third. There have been $2½ billion of cuts to skills and TAFE nationally by this government since it was elected.

That is a real problem. The fact that skills and vocational education are being undermined in this country and the fact that people are not taking up apprenticeships is a real problem, because it is just not the case anymore that there is a wide range of entry-level jobs out there for people to go into while they are still at school or when they finish school. In my day, I, as a 14-and-nine-month-year-old, went and got a job at a convenience store, of course—I had worked in my parent's small business before then—and ended up working at one of the big supermarkets. It is getting harder and harder for kids to find those entry-level jobs that give them something to put on the resume and the skills that they need for employment—skills like knowing how important things are, knowing how to work with co-workers that might be different to you, or knowing how to pay the right amount of respect to the boss but not allow yourself to be exploited at the same time; those sorts of skills that are second nature to people who have had a lifetime in work.

Kids are not getting the same opportunities, and one really important thing that we can do to make sure that young people are able to be equipped for the jobs of the future is to really focus on education. That means dealing with vocational education and training. That means doing something about the funding arrangements for schools, which are so unfair and unrealistic in this country and are leading to some schools been much worse off than others, when that just should not be the case. It means doing something about access to university, and not making it harder for people to go to university if that is what they want to do. And, at the very, very front end, it means a focus on early learning, education and care.

It has been unfortunate to see some of the acrobatics that the government has engaged in in relation to child care in recent weeks here in the parliament. There are certainly some good moves that are being made by the government in relation to child care but, at the same time, asking for those to be funded by cuts to school-aged kids' families and also ignoring the needs of the very, very disadvantaged kids, by offering only 12 hours of care rather than 15, which is the difference between one day and two days, the government has really displayed a regrettable lack of understanding and sympathy not only for the highly disadvantaged households but also for the middle-class and working-class households that are being asked to take cuts to their own living standards in order to fund the early learning and care reforms.

I mentioned schools funding. It is very important that we continue the focus on schools funding. You will recall that the government, when it was elected back in 2013, claimed to be on a unity ticket with Labor in relation to schools funding. That, unfortunately, turned out not to be true. They had those signs up on election day: 'We will match Labor's schools funding dollar for dollar.' That was what they were claiming at the time, but it just was not true. In fact, in my electorate of Griffith, schools are going to lose around $10 million in the next few years alone. Nationwide, that is a function of the fact that the Liberals are cutting around $30 billion from schools funding over the decade. If you want to get a sense of what that number means on the ground, it is the equivalent of sacking one in seven teachers—that is what that amount of money could represent. That means that schools in my electorate will be hurt.

I have been talking to schools in my electorate about what they are doing with the additional funding that they got because of the work that Labor did in government to commission a report on how schools funding could be reformed. Those schools are reporting back to me about the incredible things that they are doing not only in the classroom but also with the supports that they are putting around disadvantaged kids, the focus they can give to gifted and talented kids at the other end and all of the work that they are doing with the additional funding that they have.

The Liberal-National government's school cuts that are coming down the pipeline are going to mean less one-on-one attention for kids, they are going to mean fewer teachers and they are going to mean students being left behind or not reaching their full potential. That is why we are so concerned about these education cuts: for the kids themselves—for their own futures—but also for the future of the nation. Education not only is important to the living standards of a particular household or a particular person but also determines whether we are going to be a nation with a workforce of the future that has the skills, the attributes and the knowledge needed in order to do the jobs of the future; to pay the taxes of the future; to contribute to having a strong country where we can continue to fund the services that everyone relies on—the hospitals of the future and the schools of the future; and to continue to come to terms with the fact that we do, as a society, owe obligations to people who, for example, are on the age pension—so that, instead of having a situation where conservative governments try to hack into the age pension every other year, we actually have a good, strong economy that can deliver the taxes needed to pay for the services and the supports that people need.

I mention the age pension specifically, because I know that a lot of people in my electorate have been very concerned about the government's repeated attempts to cut the age pension. Some have been successful and some have been unsuccessful, but a consistent feature of this government has been their attempts to reduce the age pension. We saw it in the disastrous 2014 federal budget—possibly the worst federal budget in the history of the Federation. I do not know if there has been another budget that had such a terrible effect on confidence for this nation. You saw in the aftermath of that budget that people just stopped going out and spending money on coffees, stopped going to the newsagent and stopped consuming and doing all the things that they were doing before. The effect of this drop in confidence really hit the economy. Of course, when consumption slows down economic growth slows down, and we saw that very clearly in the months and years following the 2014 federal budget.

In my state of Queensland that was a particular hit. It was during the term of the Newman government—a government that sacked 20,000 public sector workers. When you sack 20,000 people in Queensland, that of course has consequences not just for those people but also for local small businesses. People who lose their jobs do not tend to spend as much money. People who are afraid that they are going to be next to lose their job, because you have a government taking the axe to the public service, are not going to be out there consuming and patronising small businesses. So we had already had that massive blow to our state's economy and confidence and then, to have on top of that, the 2014 federal budget was a great shock, certainly to people in my electorate.

There were a lot of attempts to make cuts in the 2014 budget. I actually do not know if I could nominate the worst; there were so many terrible ones. Remember they axed the Interactive Games Fund. They decided that they would cut funds to the Australian Taxation Office. They cut funds to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission. They took an axe to all sorts of things in that 2014 federal budget. The 20 per cent cut to public funding for universities was in the 2014 federal budget. There were axes taken everywhere. Everything was cut except, I think, Joe Hockey's cigar budget. But, other than that, there were axes taken left, right and centre in the 2014 federal budget. But, for me, one of the worst was the attempt to cut the pension by fiddling with the indexation arrangements.

Labor in government had looked at the age pension indexation arrangements and said that it is not really enough to look at what the CPI says, for a couple of reasons—firstly, because pensioners have different living costs than the general population. So we added the Pensioner and Beneficiary Living Cost Index as another index to be used for the age pension, and you took whichever was the greater of two. But you also want to benchmark it against average weekly earnings, so that as community living standards rise so do pensioners' living standards and you do not have this increased inequality. So it was also benchmarked against average weekly earnings.

But this government, in 2014, decided to try to get rid of those indexations and benchmarking and to just leave pensioners in a situation where they would be worse off. It was disingenuous and it would have left pensioners $80 a week worse off. Luckily, there was a very significant community campaign brought against these cuts and Labor campaigned against them as well and we were able to defeat them. But we have not been able to do so with all of the pension cuts that this government has introduced. Unfortunately, if you elect a coalition government, you get coalition policies implemented. Oppositions can do only so much to stop coalition governments from implementing coalition policy. Unfortunately, the coalition government's instinct to cut the pension has, in some cases, been successful.

We are particularly worried about the current attempts to scrap the energy supplement, which will cut $1 billion from pensioners, people with a disability, carers and Newstart recipients across the country. If the Liberals are able to cut the energy supplement, that will mean that that supplement will be scrapped for new pensioners from September this year. It will mean a cut of $14.10 per fortnight to single pensioners, or $365 a year, and couple pensioners will be $21.20 a fortnight worse off, or around $550 a year worse off.

This might not sound like a lot of money to the Prime Minister. But I can tell you, Madam Deputy Speaker Claydon, if you are a pensioner going to the pharmacy to get things that you need, these cuts will hurt. It is very disappointing to see the government yet again looking to find savings—that is, cuts—from pensioners, and at the same time continuing to pursue their ridiculous enterprise tax plan, which is a $50 billion tax giveaway to big business, multinational corporations and Australia's big banks.

At the same time as the government are saying that pensioners need to tighten their belts, they want to reduce the nation's taxes by giving $50 billion away to big business, multinationals and big banks. In other words, they want to make it even harder to pay for the services that Australians need, put even more pressure on the federal government, and increase the deficit even more—which is a pretty significant feat, given that they have managed to triple the deficit since their projections in 2014. They have already tripled the deficit, and now they want to give away $50 billion of tax revenue. That is going to make things even worse. And they turn to us and say: 'Well, what are you doing about savings? What are you doing about budget repair?' It is very simple: how about you don't give away $50 billion of tax revenue? How about we in this country look at superannuation tax concessions that are generous? How about we—finally, as a nation—agree that we need to do something about negative gearing? It is very clear that we need to do something about negative gearing and capital gains tax. Labor has been out very strongly leading the national debate on negative gearing and on housing affordability. It is regrettable that the government has failed to get on board, but I am hopeful that they will, at some point.

The other cuts that we are still feeling from the 2014 budget—and that the government are still pursuing—are their cuts to hospital funding over the decade. At the last election, we committed to restoring the historic agreement with the states to 2020, which would have meant an additional $400 million for Queensland public hospitals. My electorate already has world-class public hospitals, like the Princess Alexandra Hospital, which I visited recently with the shadow minister for health. Cutting funding to hospitals makes it more difficult for hospitals to provide those world-class services, and more difficult for them to engage in service innovation, like the service innovation going on at the Princess Alexandra Hospital.

Probably even more of a concern to people in my electorate is the fact that Medicare remains under siege by this government. Based on the latest figures, the GP bulk-billing rate in my electorate is woeful—it is 68.1 per cent. We rank 141st out of 150 electorates for bulk-billing rates. That is just for GP bulk-billing rates; our overall Medicare bulk-billing rate is even lower, at 66.8 per cent. That means that there are people in my electorate who just cannot access bulk billing. As many as eight per cent of people in the Brisbane South Primary Health Network will choose to delay a visit to the doctor or—worse still—avoid seeing a doctor at all. Eight per cent in my electorate; that is about 13,000 people who live in the electorate who might be at risk of compromised health care as a consequence of not be able to get access to bulk billing.

I wrote to the new Minister for Health, on the day that he was sworn in, to raise with him my very strong concern about these figures and about the compromised health care in my electorate if the current situation, where bulk billing is languishing, is allowed to continue. I also wrote to him about the rising costs of private health insurance—something that people in my electorate are very concerned about. The latest figures from Private Healthcare Australia indicate that about 60 per cent of people in my area are covered by private health insurance. There was a 5.6 average premium increase in 2016, and that followed on from an average increase of 6.2 per cent in each of the first two years of the coalition government. That is putting people in my electorate under a lot of stress.

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