Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (19:35): I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2015-2016. A Commonwealth budget is an account of what any government intends to raise in the course of the following four years and, of course, what it intends to spend. Axiomatically, the 2015 budget is as much about Tony Abbott's first budget as it is about his second. In other words, this is year 2 of the Prime Minister's budget effort. In the absence of any change in year 1, we find that his second budget is very much a function of his first budget.
I make that point because, while this budget has essentially been rebranded due to lessons learnt from the way in which the first budget was badly sold, it is essentially the same budget. It is the same budget, because all the nastiest cuts that were included in the first budget remain in the second budget. Sure, there are changes, which are welcome—for example, the $7 GP co-payment is no longer there. But the freeze on the indexation of rebates to GPs is still there, and the people who will be most affected by that freeze are those with the least ability to pay. Changes to the PBS system, which will impact on low-income earners the greatest, are still there. The reintroduction of fuel tax excise indexation is still there, and those with the least ability to pay will pay.
The big one is the $80 billion worth of cuts to the income of state and territory governments—income which they in turn use to fund the all-important education and health systems in their jurisdictions. They will hurt very, very much. Of course, we do not see the impact immediately. It may take years before we start to feel them, but they will come. Kevin Rudd, when he was Prime Minister, took a greater responsibility for the funding of the state hospital systems because it was very clear the states' ability to fund those systems to a standard we have come to expect in Australia was coming to an end. The then Prime Minister did not give over the extra money because he felt like it or because he wanted to or, indeed, because it might make him popular. He handed over the additional money by necessity, in the recognition that in the absence of that additional money our public health system would eventually grind to a halt. These cuts will, if not grind them to a halt, almost certainly lead to a significant deterioration in the experiences of people who attend our public health system for assistance.
The pension cuts as they were presented in the first budget are not there, but another method has been found to cut into the pension payments of many Australians. There were cuts to a range of not-for-profit groups around our country, who are doing good work in our community. The member for Aston was talking about the scourge of the drug ice. Yes, the Prime Minister has established a task force. I have no criticism of the task force. I wish it well. I hope and trust it will be able to do something off the back of its community consultation and other work to address this scourge. But what the member for Aston does not appreciate is that many of the groups which had their Commonwealth funding cut in the Prime Minister's first budget were the very groups which work in our communities to help people who are facing drug addiction problems and to support those around them, including their children.
For example, there is a grandparent's group in my electorate, in Maitland, and they are there to care for grandchildren who unfortunately have suffered the consequence of parents who have difficulties and challenges—typically drug-addicted parents. They were getting a modest amount of money from the Commonwealth to cover the administrative costs of their program—money they probably cannot survive without. That money went in the first budget and has not been restored in the second. If the member for Aston really wants to help us deal with the ice problems, and of course other drug problems in our communities, he might want to reflect on that.
There have been massive budget cuts for Landcare groups—hundreds of thousands of dollars cut in the first budget and not restored in the second budget. The list goes on and on. There are cuts to research and development—to our CRCs, to the CSIRO, to the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. None of that has been restored. CRCs will soon fold because the Abbott government, unlike every other government, did not continue their funding into the next round. It is all gone.
This all goes to jobs. The best thing you can do to help someone avoid going into drug addiction and dependence on drugs and all the social fallout from that is get them into work. To do that you need a strong economy, which we do not have. It is funny—before the election, Tony Abbott said our economic challenges had nothing to do with the global environment; it was all to do with the fiscal mismanagement of the then Labor government. There was no recognition of the global financial crisis and the fact that we were one of only a very few Western economies to come through the GFC without falling into recession. Now, after the election, it is all about the global economy and nothing to do with the current Prime Minister and the current Treasurer. That is wrong. We know in this budget that unemployment is on the rise and, sadly, it is projected to continue to rise.
As complex as the national economy is, there is a pretty simple explanation for that. Sure, iron ore prices have fallen dramatically, but that was happening before the Prime Minister was elected. I genuinely believe a major contributor is the way in which this Prime Minister and his Treasurer have talked the economy down over their 20-month period. You can see consumer confidence plummeting as a result, and that is not a way to generate employment in a slowing economy. Now we see, in this budget, the narrative has changed: 'Now we need fiscal stimulus; there is no budget emergency any longer; there is no debt crisis—now we are free to spend some money to stimulate the economy.' This is the problem with this government—it lacks an economic narrative. It lacks the capacity to pursue structural reform. We all agree with social policy reform. Labor governments in the past have done excellent work in reforming social policy—for example, the way we paid pensions and other benefits in 1901 differs from the way we pay them in 2015. Society changes dramatically—our demographics change, our population changes, our age profile changes. Social policy is an area that is constantly in need of adjustment. But this is not adjustment. This is a government that has gone in search of easy, quick savings measures not affecting those with the capacity to pay, not reflecting the fact that some people have come out of a situation where they might not have needed as much government support as previously was the case—they went right to the bottom, to pensioners, the unemployed and those who are relying on allowances like Family Tax Benefit B to make ends meet on a weekly basis. That is not structural reform—that is just lazy policy change designed to make up for the inadequacies of this government's economic approach.
Unemployment matters in my electorate very much. I like the old Neville Wran phrase—there are only two issues in politics: jobs, jobs and jobs.
We have a very diverse electorate in Hunter—a whole range of agricultural pursuits such as dairy, beef, grains, horticulture and viticulture, for which we are most famous. We also have within our boundaries the horse capital of Australia, we have a huge services sector and we have a very large manufacturing centre—albeit a lot of that manufacturing is tied to the coalmining industry.
In all the time that I have been in politics, both local and federal, I have dealt with land use conflicts, and we have plenty of them in the valley. Coalmining is huge—it is a huge employer and a huge contributor to economic output—and, of course, it has lived side by side in relative harmony with viticulture, thoroughbred breeding and other agricultural pursuits for many years. That relationship got a little bit tougher when through the mining boom coalmining expanded at a rapid rate and in doing so came closer and closer to sensitive sustainable industries like thoroughbred breeding, agriculture and viticulture more generally. These are big challenges but, as diverse as our economy is, it is coalmining that puts the icing on the cake for us. It is coalmining that gives communities like Muswellbrook a median weekly income second only to beachside Merewether in Newcastle. It is coalmining that caused our unemployment rate to drop from, when I was first elected, 13½ per cent to at one stage 3.9 per cent. We could never hope to do that without coalmining. It is the decline in the boom, the move on from the investment phase of the boom, which is causing unemployment now to rise again towards double-digit figures. I make an appeal to people: surely in this 21st century we have the wit to ensure that we can protect our sustainable industries while at the same time continuing to rely heavily on the coalmining industry to put the cream on the cake, or in this case to keep the cream on the cake.
I go to school presentations and look out into the crowd at all the parents, and a very large slice of them are wearing the typical fluoro-type uniforms worn in coal mines. I go to the pubs and the clubs and the supermarkets and I see them everywhere, and I often ask myself what sort of economy we would have without them. Some might say we can replace them. I am happy to hear that argument, but I have not heard any bright ideas yet.
The frustrating thing for me is that this is largely the domain of the state government. I am not going to be generally critical of the state government, but I am increasingly concerned that state governments are moving towards these blanket bans on coal seam gas resources and coalmining resources. We should never put blanket bans on resource projects. We should treat every case and project on its merits. Some will be developed at no expense to our sustainable industries—and I should say that sustainable industries take priority, because hopefully they will be with us for thousands of years while some of these projects will be with us for maybe 100 years, if that. But there are projects that can be sustainably developed without a threat to other industries, and we should always ensure that these things are treated on merit.
It takes me to an issue that is fairly close to my heart these days, and that is the capacity of the Commonwealth to intervene in these projects. I think it is good to have a second referee, if you like. Once a project runs the gauntlet of the state government consideration process and approvals processes, the EPBC allows the Commonwealth to take a second look if there are issues around flora, fauna and, since the initiative taken by the former Labor government, now water. I think that helps us make the industry more sustainable because it gives a guarantee to the broader community that there are checks and balances in place.
I am concerned that this government, the Abbott government, wants to send those rights and that role back to the very state governments making the first decision in the first place. I say: do not do that. Keep the Commonwealth involved, and in the case of water keep the scientific panel involved. Let's build community support, important support, for our resource industries by being able to tell people: 'Don't worry. It's not just a matter for the New South Wales government in my case, or state governments generally, but indeed there is a second referee on the field, the federal environment minister.' I am hopeful that, if we build that confidence again in our local communities, we will in turn build greater levels of support for the coal and coal seam gas industries where they are appropriate, and that is going to be so important to employment in my electorate.