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What chance a fair and decent country?
Tuesday's budget should have improved life for Australian families. That's the test any government budget should meet. Australian families are under growing pressure. They are working longer hours and paying record taxes. The last thing Australian families need is to pay more for vital services like health and education. But that's what Tuesday's budget was all about.
A civilised society demands health care based on medical need and education for all based on ability. I believe that health and education are not just about providing services to individuals. They are public goods, for all Australians. We must invest in these vital services. But under the Howard government we are heading in the opposite direction.
Instead of improving life for families, this budget is making things worse. It is giving Australian families a miserly $4 tax cut, while destroying Medicare and charging them more for education. The Howard government failed the test on Tuesday night. It's time for something new. Tonight I want to announce a new deal for Australia and Australian families.
- A new deal to save Medicare and bulk billing.
- A pledge to keep higher education affordable and accessible.
- A plan to save the Murray River from a slow, tragic death.
- A retirement tax cut for every Australian.
- A new deal to protect the savings of Australians.
- An end to public subsidies of executive golden handshakes.
- A better deal for small business.
- And a better way to protect Australia and our children.
Most of all I want to give Australians a sense of hope that Australia can remain a fair and decent country that provides opportunities for all.
Saving Medicare and bulk billing
I believe that every Australian must have the right to access a doctor who bulk bills. And they must have the right to attend a well-funded public hospital without charge. I won't say for free, because it's not free. Australians know that. They have already paid for Medicare through their Medicare Levy and their taxes. They have earned it. They shouldn't have to pay again when they visit a doctor. Quality health care must only ever be available on the basis of medical need. It should never be rationed according to ability to pay. It shouldn't be a two-tiered system. It shouldn't be a second-rate system.
Look at the United States. Forty-five million people do not have any health cover. They live in fear of serious illness. It destroys family finances, sometimes for generations. That's not the sort of health system I want for Australia. There's a profound difference between the Labor Party and our opponents. We are the builders. They are the wreckers. Labor built Medibank under Gough Whitlam and then Medicare under Bob Hawke because we believe everyone should have access to affordable health care. The Liberals have never believed in affordable health care. They want you to pay more. That's why they wrecked Medibank. And it's why the Prime Minister is wrecking Medicare now. That's why tonight I'm announcing that a Labor government will act to save Medicare and bulk billing. I will not allow Medicare to be replaced by an Americanised, privatised system where instead of your Medicare Card, doctors ask for your credit card and refuse to treat you unless you pay up front. Saving Medicare starts with restoring your patient rebate.
So tonight I am announcing that a Crean Labor government will lift the patient rebate for bulk billing for all Australians, no matter where they live, or how much they earn. We will lift your patient rebate immediately upon coming to office to 95 per cent of the scheduled fee, and then take it to 100 per cent - an average rise of $5 for every consultation that is bulk billed. This is not just for concession card holders. It is for everyone.
As we know, access to bulk billing is declining faster in some parts of Australia than in others. To remedy this, under Labor, doctors who meet bulk billing targets will receive additional incentive payments. Doctors in metropolitan areas who bulk bill 80 per cent of services will receive an additional $7,500 a year. Doctors in outer metropolitan areas who bulk bill 75 per cent of services will receive an additional $15,000. And doctors in rural and regional areas who bulk bill 70 per cent of services will receive an additional $22,500. This is the equivalent of increasing your patient rebate by as much as $6.30 for a doctor in a metropolitan area, $7.80 in an outer metropolitan area and $9.60 for a doctor in a rural area.
This is a significant down payment towards restoring bulk billing and saving Medicare. Without bulk billing there is no Medicare. Our objective is to get bulk billing to a national average target of 80 per cent. It won't happen overnight, but tonight's measures represent a significant down payment.
Labor will also increase the number of doctors in rural areas and make more nurses available to doctors who meet Labor's bulk billing targets. These measures will help take the pressure off our public hospitals because that's where people go if they can't find a bulk-billing doctor. And Labor will also provide additional funds to ensure that veterans with Gold and White Repatriation Health Cards continue to have the access to the bulk billing they deserve.
There is another important aspect of Medicare that Labor will protect - affordable access to pharmaceuticals. Labor will not support the Howard government's 30 per cent hike in the cost of essential medicines. Last year when I announced Labor's response to this price hike, I announced a raft of proposals that will cut the overall cost of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, but which will not impose charges on you.
Medicare is not only the most equitable health system we can have, it is also the most efficient. Medicare is prudent economics. It is the envy of the world. Why would you want to destroy it? Especially when we know we can afford to save it. Budgets are about values, priorities and choices. Labor's priority has been clear - save Medicare.
Labor's plan to save Medicare is responsible and fully funded. In the budget two days ago the Treasurer announced a further $300 million in tax cuts for multinational businesses. Now you know where cuts to your family's health services are going! To help pay for Labor's new deal to save Medicare, I will redirect some of the government's business tax changes from Tuesday night. I will also redirect the savings from scrapping the destructive changes to Medicare that were in the budget. This isn't a tax and spend proposal. It's a cut and fix proposal. And it is a question of priorities. Corporate tax cuts do not have the same priority as saving Medicare for Australian families. Let's be clear about this. We have a very different view of Australian society than our opponents, and I'll be happy to have an argument about these priorities anywhere, anytime.
A new deal for lifelong learning
Education is a bridge to the future. It doesn't just give individuals opportunity; it advances and strengthens us as a society. It should not be treated as a tradeable commodity. The world is changing so rapidly that our children will be working in jobs that haven't been imagined yet and will have to update their skills throughout their lives, not just when they are young. This bridge to the future has many paths leading to it. We must invest in putting down those paths and we must not put up financial barriers. Our goal must be the creation of a world-leading system of lifelong learning. It must start with the early years - the crucial years for developing our learning skills. Too many of our children are slipping through the net because they are not getting the help they need. Opportunities are being lost because not enough money is being invested in our schools.
While we encourage everyone to get a Year 12 qualification, we don't provide enough apprenticeships or enough places at university or TAFE for them. Our Vice Chancellors advise us that 20,000 qualified young Australians are turned away every year. The cost to them and our country is enormous. Finding those places must be our objective. And we must have a new agreement with the States to create more TAFE places. We also need to give adults more assistance in upgrading their skills throughout their working lives. We must destroy the blight on our society of middle-age long-term unemployment.
That's why my new deal for Australian families is a comprehensive plan for lifelong learning - a bridge to the future for all of us. Just as I have done with Medicare tonight, I will outline in the coming months my plans to build a better education system for all Australians. As a result of the changes outlined in Tuesday's budget, students and their families will be forced into massive debt to obtain a university degree. Fees will increase by up to 30 per cent, leaving students with HECS debts of up to $40,000 or more. Many more degrees will cost over $100,000. And students paying those fees will be hit with a 6 per cent interest charge. How can we expect our young people to ever be able to buy a home and start a family with debts like these? In the interest of keeping student and family debt down, we will support lifting the HECS threshold to $30,000, but will not support the unfair elements of this government's unfair university package.
Tonight I make this pledge to Australian families: I will not allow this government to slug you and your children with a 30 per cent increase in your university fees. I will not allow this government to saddle you and your children with $800 million of new debt. And I will not allow the wealthy to jump the queue and take the university places that rightly belong to the hardest working and the most able young Australians.
The Treasurer said last night that Labor's refusal to pass these measures means we are blocking his big, bold reforms. Charging students tens of thousands of dollars for a degree is not a big bold reform, Treasurer. Opening up our universities to all Australians - like the Whitlam and Hawke governments did - is a big bold reform. And I will do it again. The Liberals only ever see education as a cost and something they can slug you for. Labor knows - as every parent knows - that education is the greatest investment we can make in our shared future.
Our shared future must involve a commitment to save our natural environment. We all love Australia's rugged environment. As a keen bushwalker, I've seen first hand how beautiful, but also how fragile, our country is. I recently visited the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia. What I saw distressed me. It also angered me. It will do the same for all Australians who see it. The once mighty river's mouth has all but closed. It has shrunk to the length of a cricket pitch. The water is only knee deep. Barely a trickle flows to the sea. In some places it's flowing backwards!
The Murray is dying. Native fish are facing extinction, exotic species are choking the river and salinity is spreading. If we don't restore the health of the Murray, there will no longer be a river system capable of supporting our farmers into the future. This is a great national challenge and it will require a significant long-term investment. My new deal for Australia will save the Murray. I announce tonight that Labor will restore enough environmental flows to keep the mouth of the Murray open and to restore the health of the river. We will stop large-scale and indiscriminate land clearing to prevent salinity. And we will ratify the Kyoto Protocol to prevent more severe droughts in the future.
Restoring the flows of our rivers will take serious levels of investment. A Labor government will therefore create the Murray-Darling Riverbank - a special new government corporation to secure long-term funding for much-needed investment in Australia's water resources. We will make an initial capital injection of $150 million as the first down payment to save our rivers and attract matching funds from the States and the private sector.
Riverbank will invest in innovative projects that will set a new direction for water use in Australia, will help farmers achieve on-farm efficiency improvements and encourage increased water reuse and recycling. It will finance projects in its own right and participate in joint ventures with State and Territory governments and the private sector. This will greatly increase the funds available for this urgent national priority. Just as Bob Hawke saved the Franklin River twenty years ago, my pledge is to save the Murray River - the lifeblood of our nation.
Tax and the budget
My father was fond of quoting the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, who famously said: "When you pay taxes you buy civilisation". If you ask me what a civilised society means today, my answer is this: a country where anyone, regardless of where they live or how much they earn, can get the same standard of medical care when they get sick. A country where education is available on the basis of ability, not your ability to pay. And a country that protects its natural environment for future generations to enjoy. That's the sort of civilised society I want Australia to be.
This is the vision that should have been Tuesday night's Budget. Sadly it was not. We all know why. This government thinks that by giving you $4 a week you won't notice its real agenda - you pay more. You pay more to see a doctor. You pay more for an education. And you go further and further into debt. It's John Howard's message to all Australians: "Sorry about Medicare, sorry about your kids' education, sorry about your credit card debt, but here's four dollars instead." The highest taxing government in our history has given you the smallest tax cut in our history.
The Prime Minister and the Treasurer think that Australians earning between $30,000 and $50,000 a year are so affluent that you only need another $4 a week. But while they give with one hand they slug you with the other. Up to $50 to go to the doctor. $32 per week in extra HECS debt. And $125 per week to pay for your new student loan. Australians have earned the tax cut in the Budget. Labor will pass it on. But Australians deserve more from their government. Four dollars on its own, set against the massive cost increases for health and education outlined in this Budget, is miserly and a sleight of hand. A Crean Labor government will return bracket creep through both tax cuts and better services. Tonight I'm demonstrating how a combination of those things can make a family better off.
A new deal on superannuation
A key test of your values, choices and priorities is whether you believe in rewarding the many or the few. Tuesday night's Budget contains another tax cut - one Peter Costello was too embarrassed to talk about. His superannuation tax cut for the top few per cent of income earners. Especially at a time when superannuation returns are going backwards, Australians need a retirement tax cut to reward the many, not the few.
Labor will redirect Peter Costello's unfair superannuation tax cut to pay for a superannuation tax cut for all Australians, cutting your superannuation contribution tax from 15 per cent to 13 per cent. This means thousands of dollars more for your retirement. Labor has always been the party of pensioners, but we are the party of superannuants as well. Only Labor extended superannuation to all; only Labor will improve it for all.
A new deal to protect your savings
But there's no use investing in superannuation if your savings aren't safe. More than 50 per cent of Australians now directly own shares and 90 per cent of Australian workers have an interest in the share market through their superannuation. The retirement savings of the whole nation depend on a well-regulated corporate sector.
In the past two years there have been a number of huge corporate collapses, including Ansett, HIH and OneTel. When this happens, the executives in charge invariably refuse to take responsibility for what they've done. We have all heard of over-paid executives awarding themselves massive bonuses and golden handshakes just as their companies go belly-up. But rather than punish them, the Howard government rewards these executives with a 30 per cent tax subsidy paid with your taxes. Why should a family struggling to cope with financial pressures caused by bracket creep, the GST, bank charges and other hidden taxes have to foot the bill for golden handshakes as well - handshakes they don't get when they are retrenched.
Enough is enough. Labor will double current penalties when executives break corporate law. We will force top executives to further disclose their pay packages in full, including their share options. We will strengthen Australian shareholders' rights by giving them a vote on these packages when they are unfair and unreasonable. And tonight I announce that Labor will stop your taxes being used to subsidise by thirty per cent the million dollar golden handshakes being given to some executives. This means that under Labor all redundancy payments over the value of $1 million will no longer be eligible business deductions for companies. Labor values Medicare, not corporate greed.
A new deal for small business
There were two words missing from the Treasurer's budget speech on Tuesday night - "small business". While the budget may not allow us to cut taxes for small business, only Labor will cut their paperwork. Peter Costello is spending $150 million of your money to employ 1,230 new tax officials to make your BAS nightmare even worse. Labor will cut that red tape. Under Labor's plan, small-business owners will only have to make one simple calculation for each BAS statement based on a percentage of your turnover. The time-consuming and complicated reconciliation process will be eliminated. By substantially reducing your BAS compliance costs, Labor will put more money back into your pocket and give many of Australia's small businesses more time to spend on their business or with their families.
Protecting our national security
The government's budget contains many worthwhile initiatives to make our nation safer. But more needs to be done. Labor will coordinate our security in Australia through a new Department of Homeland Security. Labor will ensure our intelligence agencies talk to each other through an Office of National Security, headed by a National Security Adviser. Labor will establish a Coast Guard - a maritime cop on the beat, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to stop drug and gun runners and people smugglers. And Labor will establish Community Safety Zones to work with your local community to help fight crime. Labor will protect your security, not just national security.
Protecting our children
Recent events highlight the need to protect our children. Something positive must come out of those events. Labor will establish a National Commissioner for Children who will develop a National Code for the Protection of Children and oversee checks on people who work with children to ensure that potential child sexual abusers do not get access to them. Under my government, all organisations in receipt of Commonwealth funds will have to comply with this code and these checks. We must resolve as a nation to ensure that allegations of child sex abuse are never ignored in the future and that the truth is never again swept under the carpet. Labor will give parents more confidence that their children are safe.
Tuesday night's budget failed Australian families. The smallest tax cut from the highest taxing government in our history. More debt for our students and their families. And the destruction of Medicare. We face serious challenges in rebuilding Medicare, improving access to affordable education and repairing our environment. These must be our nation's long-term national priorities. They cannot be solved overnight.
But governments can make a difference. Tonight I have laid out my new deal in each of these areas, significant steps towards our long-term goals. Budgets are about choices. Now the choice is yours. Tonight I'm offering an alternative. To make education affordable and accessible to all based on ability. To save the Murray River from its tragic death. To help you save for the future and to make your savings more secure. To make Australians more secure and better protect our children. And tonight, a new deal to save Medicare, not destroy it. That's what I want for Australia and that's what I'll fight for. A new deal for Australia and Australians.
Simon Crean is the Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. This budget address in reply was delivered in the Australian Parliament on 15 May 2003.