Posted on Monday, 21 May, 2018
Mr RAMSEY (Grey—Government Whip) (16:45): It gives me great pleasure to rise on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2018-2019. I would have to say that I've been in this place 10 years now and back in the electorate there is the best response to a budget I've ever met. It's been a tough decade for Australian taxpayers and, after the 4½ years since the coalition came to government, at last a surplus is in sight. It's not the member for Lilley's fake promises. It's not the, 'We'll be back in the black by 2012-13,' as promised by the member for Lilley. It's not the 'My commitment to a surplus in 2012-13 was a promise made and it will be honoured,' as the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in April 2011. It's not a hundred other quotes announcing the surplus being delivered when the record shows six years of multibillion-dollar deficits under the former Labor government.
It's been hard work since that time, in the 4½ years of the coalition government. Since coming to government, the coalition has applied a steady handbrake on growth to government expenditure. It's not a brick wall that would have stalled the economy, no slashing of jobs and no savage cuts, but gentle pressure across the board that has allowed for growth in government expenditure, has increased services and, most importantly, has promoted growth in the country. I think perhaps the most important news in the budget is that we do return to surplus next year, a year earlier than we predicted. Contrast that to the former government, where the surplus just kept getting postponed and put further and further out. In fact, this government, with a sustained effort, will bring in a surplus 12 months earlier than predicted. This is an enormous turnaround, and we have gotten there by underpromising and overdelivering—always a very good path for governments.
The brightest part of the economy is the jobs growth, with 427,000 in the last 12 months, and one million new jobs since the coalition was elected in 2013. It doesn't happen by accident. One million new jobs means there are one million people that are no longer on new start; one million people that are paying tax and contributing to the wealth of this nation; and one million people that will are renting and building houses and installing a new kitchen in their house, giving jobs to other people.
The budget delivers immediate tax relief for middle-income earners. Within four years, the government will remove the 37-cents-in-the-dollar rate completely. Now, a lot of rubbish has been spoken about the changes the government proposes in taxation. I would love to wax lyrical about that and point out all of those errors, but there is a bill coming up on this matter in the next 24 or 48 hours, and I'll reserve my comments on the changes to the tax rates to that debate.
There is a whole raft of good news. In Grey, without doubt, the big ticket item in infrastructure is the commitment to duplicate the Joy Baluch AM Bridge at Port Augusta. For those of you that don't know—I know, of course, you would, Mr Deputy Speaker Irons—all of the north-south traffic through Central Australia and all of the east-west traffic across the south of Australia passes over this single bridge at Port Augusta. It is the only viable link between the east and west of Port Augusta. Emergency services can be sidelined if traffic is interrupted on the bridge. Yorkeys Crossing, which is the alternative crossing, is around about a 30-kilometre diversion around the northern swampland of the gulf. It is sometimes suspect and sometimes closed because of wet weather. That has been the fail-safe measure here. I point out that all of the emergency services in Port Augusta are located on the east side, and there is a substantial population living on the west side. You can imagine what would happen if the bridge happened to be out of commission when one of those emergencies eventuated.
East and west Port Augusta were first joined in 1927 by the Great Western Bridge, a wooden bridge which still stands but looks more like a jetty than a bridge—a wooden structure. It was superseded in 1972 by the now-named Joy Baluch AM Bridge. That bridge has served us and the nation—I've talked about the crossflow of traffic and freight across the nation—well since then. However, the designs of 1972 are quite different to today's, and that bridge, as part of its features, has a narrow walkway to the side of the road. This walkway is about 1.4 metres wide, and two gophers can't pass each other if they meet on the walkway. The other day, a lady was pushing a pram with twins in it—the side-by-side arrangement, Deputy Speaker Irons; you would be quite familiar with it—across the bridge, and the pedestrian they encountered had to step onto the roadway to go around the pram. It is obviously not a safe arrangement. In fact, schools are now bussing children from one side of the gulf to the other. Parents draw their breath when their children ride across the bridge on the walkway. They are millimetres from 100-tonne-plus road trains. It's an accident waiting to happen.
Up until April last year it all worked okay, until Port Augusta City Council, which now owns the Great Western Bridge, closed the bridge—the old wooden walkway I talked about earlier—which had fallen into a dilapidated state. These things happen; the bridge had to be closed. Of course, the old wooden bridge was where the pedestrians in Port Augusta had been crossing the gulf since 1972. It forced all of the foot traffic onto the Joy Baluch AM Bridge—and I've described that walkway. I raised this issue with the former South Australian government, along with the then minister for transport, the member for Gippsland. I asked for an engineering report with suggestions on how to install a safe, separated walkway on the bridge. In the almost 12 months through to the state election it never came. I could not believe it. Despite my repeated calls for the state minister to come up with an engineering report on what was the state's bridge it never came. I had great concern for safety in the city.
So the caravan's moved on. In the lead up to the election, I met with a number of business groups. I met with SACOME, the South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy. Their No. 1 priority was the duplication of the bridge across the gulf. I was very pleased indeed when that wish, if you like, was granted in the budget. $160 million committed from the federal government to partner the Marshall state government on an 80-20 basis. Let me say, what a pleasure it is to work with a government that is open for building infrastructure in rural and regional areas. We were able to strike a deal quite quickly. It's a huge investment. It will be quite disruptive, and I ask residents to be somewhat patient, because we know that none of the work has been done on this bridge at this stage. We will need such things as native title clearance, EPA clearance and coastal protection clearance. We don't know exactly where the bridge is going to go and whose houses and businesses might have to be removed as a result of building that bridge. We have no designs at this stage. We are starting from scratch and it will take a little bit of time.
There has been a bit of sniping about the projections in the budget for the expenditure. There's $60 million in the forward estimates. The extra $100 million lies in the projections. Let me say, if we are running in front of the time frame that Treasury predicts to build this bridge, we will find the money. You will not find that this government is holding up the construction of that bridge. I'll be putting pressure on at every level to make sure that we get on with this job, because this is very important. If we are seen to be dragging our heels and something bad happens—I don't even want to contemplate that. I am just so thankful that we've got this commitment from the federal government and that we have this commitment from the Marshall state government.
So that's the big ticket item in Grey. But, let me tell you, there are a lot of extra things in the budget, many of which I and others like me have been lobbying for. In aged care we have an extra 14,000 home-care packages to go along with the 6,000 that the minister allocated in the MYEFO last December. That is 20,000 packages. We know this is still not going to be enough to fill the backlog, but it is an enormous commitment. The Minister for Aged Care has taken this chamber through a process where he has actually drawn in the numbers, so we now understand what that backlog is. It's an enormous commitment and I thank him very much for it. He's also put aside money to help rural aged-care facilities. They can apply to it for capital grants, and I have quite a number that are looking for any kind of assistance they can get. Delivering aged-care services in the country is more expensive than delivering them in the city, and we need to recognise that. These smaller facilities, which are suboptimal in size, are so important to their local communities. As much as is humanly possible, people need to be able to age within their own communities where they are supported by friends and family.
Also in the budget—and I think this is very important—there is an increase, from $250 to $300 per fortnight, in the amount that age pensioners can earn before it will affect their pension. They will applaud this. There is an extension of the $20,000 automatic tax write-off for small businesses—for all businesses, in fact. This has been a very popular measure in the last few years, and I applaud the fact we've been able to extend that. We've raised the threshold for qualification for independent youth allowance. It does raise my eyebrow, I must say, that the independent youth allowance is dependent on what your parents earn. It seems to me that 'independent' would indicate that the student is independent. But we have lifted that threshold where they can apply from $150,000 to $160,000, with an extra $10,000 for each student that is under that parent's responsibility at that stage.
From 1 July there's a new package for parents needing childcare. It will make a considerable difference to working parents. There's a further $200 million on offer for another round of the Building Better Regions Fund. We've had quite a number of very good projects funded throughout the Grey electorate under this program. We always have lots of applications, and I'm looking forward to trying to partner again with those people putting applications into the next round. We have a commitment to a fourth round of the Stronger Communities Program. Once again, this is at the lower end, the grassroots, of community, where we see grants of from $2,000 to maybe $20,000. These are grants that make an enormous difference to voluntary organisations.
The budget committed an extra $550 million for the Stronger Rural Health Strategy. Many times I've spoken in this chamber about the challenges of finding GPs to work in rural Australia, and the suggestions that I've brought forward include something that has not been picked up yet: postcode-specific Medicare provider numbers. This is a constant issue for those of us who live in the country. In fact, at this stage, the electorate of Grey is 29 GPs short. That is up from a figure of around 19 eighteen months ago, and I'm very concerned. That's why I'm pleased the government is making a considerable commitment in this area, including upskilling existing doctors so they feel better prepared to deal with whatever the practice may throw at them, and increasing the number of placements for undergraduates to experience something of rural living while they're going through their training program.
Something that many schools around my electorate will be celebrating is a commitment to permanent funding of the School Chaplaincy Program. This is a program that was created by the coalition. It was altered somewhat during the Labor years, but we brought it back in its original form. It is extremely popular. The schools just lap it up, I have to say. When we're talking about issues in this place such as mental health and our young people needing assistance, a quiet hand and someone to go to to talk about issues, the School Chaplaincy Program is really delivering.
So, right across the board, I welcome the budget. As I said, it's probably the one that has gone down the best in the entire time that I've spent in this chamber.