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Greens 2015 budget-in-reply speech

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Richard Di Natale 14 May 2015

Check against delivery

The real test of a budget is not just in the numbers, but in whether the decisions that underpin it make Australia a better nation.

Does it reflect and promote a more caring society, and relieve pressure from those who are feeling it most? Are benefits and opportunities shared among many, or an elite few? Does it recognise that a healthy economy depends on ensuring a sustainable future and clean environment?

Does it set out a long term vision for our country?

The answer, when it comes to this budget and indeed the one preceded it, is a resounding no.

When you don't have a destination you can't know where you are going. If you do not have a plan for where you want to be in 20, 30, 50 years, you'll never get there.

Budgets should reflect the values of our community - what we want for our lives, our families, our workplaces, and the role we want Australia to play on the global stage.

Can I go to the doctor, and how much will it cost? What type of education can I afford for my children? What happens to me if I become unemployed? Will I have enough for my retirement? What sort of future will my children inherit?

Instead of the small-minded visionless budget that the Liberal government handed down this week, the Greens wanted to see a budget that tackles climate change, and protects investment and jobs in the renewable energy sector. That invests in health and mental health services. That funds public transport. A budget that helps advance the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. A budget that supports those who need it most.

We needed a budget that puts the interests of the community ahead of a privileged few.
The Budget that was announced this week cannot be separated from the one that preceded it. The 2014 Budget laid the foundations for a cruel and uncertain future, and this week, the Abbott government has cemented those foundations, maintaining cuts that put pressure on Australians. It is a budget that further entrenches the Abbott government's cruel and ideological attack on the Australian community.

Tertiary education remains on the chopping block, with university fee deregulation still part of the government's agenda despite being rejected by students across the country.

Changes to the Family Tax Benefit system remain, putting even more financial pressure on parents around the country.

The $80 billion slashed from health and education last year continues to take effect, with no indication these cuts that have caused stress around the country in our public hospitals and schools will be reversed.

Science and innovation continues to be under attack, with last year's cuts made even deeper through further slashing of funding to Cooperative Research Centres, science funding and innovation. Investment in R&D in Australia is now at record lows.

The legal aid organisations that help care for the most vulnerable still face great uncertainty around their long-term funding.

Australia's foreign aid remains at record lows, with this budget doubling down on the massive cuts from 2014, with the contribution to Indonesia nearly halved and foreign aid to Africa cut by 70 per cent. Having witnessed the devastation from Ebola, I know this can only mean further misery and suffering for some of the most vulnerable children on earth. Foreign aid will be cut by a further $3.7 billion over the next three years - $11bn in total since the Abbott government came to power.

Attacks on young Australians trying to find work continue, with Earn or Learn remaining a centrepiece of this Government's budget. Tony Abbott fails to understand that whether it is for 1 month or 6 months young people under 25 can't pay the rent or feed themselves if they don't have an income.

Landcare funding was slashed in the last budget, and the Government has now gone even further, ripping out $12.3m on top of the $483m it cut in 2014. I know what this means to those people in my own landcare network who do such great work in helping to rehabilitate our natural environment.

And where is climate change in the Budget? Where is it? How can you hand down a budget, with no mention of the very thing that poses the major threat to our economy, our health and indeed the planet that sustains us. We welcome drought assistance to farmers but the most effective form of drought assistance is tackling the very thing that will make drought a regular feature of the Australian landscape and that is climate change.

Worse still is the introduction of a $5 billion Infrastructure slush fund for Northern Australia to hand out taxpayer dollars to fund coal projects in Queensland's Galilee basin. With the planet burning and coal prices tanking this government have chosen to prop up the polluting industries of the last century.

The irony is that on budget morning, the seaside town of Anglesea, not far from my home at the foothills of the Otway ranges received news that the dirty, polluting brown coal fired power station, situated a little over 1km from the local primary school would close. The town would have clean air and a healthier future with less asthma, less heart disease, and fewer cancers.

The announcement was made because after a year and a half of searching, the owners Alcoa could not find anyone to buy the power station. This despite huge public subsidies and an extension of the mine lease for another 50 years. Anglesea's closure is just another expression of the clear transition happening in the global energy marketplace. There is now more global investment in clean energy than in fossil fuels. Coal has lost its advantage as the cheapest source of power because once built, clean energy costs nothing to run. The sun, wind and waves do the work for us.

This budget is not preparing us for this inevitable transition. The workers who learned they lost their jobs on Tuesday deserved better, because it seems that everyone but this government can see the change coming. Australia has more power stations than we need, so we know there will be more closures of coal mines and coal plants. It won't be long before Hazelwood in Victoria and the Gladstone power station in Queensland go the same way. If we do not support these workers to prepare for a new future now we are throwing them to the wolves when they lose their jobs without warning.

After assuming the leadership of the Greens I said that I wanted to be a champion for the health of ordinary people. If we are to make real progress in health, we need to address those factors that lie outside the health system.

That means ensuring we have the clean air and water on which we all depend, it means having a roof over our head, a decent education, meaningful employment, and access to good health care. We need to address all of these issues if we want to make genuine progress in improving people's health.

Australians deserve a world class health system but this budget takes us further away from that goal.

Since taking office the Abbott government has argued that Medicare is unsustainable but sustainability is a question of priorities, not just accounting.

Don't be fooled into thinking that we can't continue to invest in health care because sustainability is a matter of choice. Either we invest in primary health care, hospitals, dental care and mental health; or we head down the two tiered American route where your access to health care depends on the size of your wallet.

While Australia's health spend is projected to continue to increase marginally as a proportion of GDP over coming decades, the major driver of these increased costs is the development of new and improved health interventions, not the ageing population or the frequency of GP visits as the government would have us believe.

Far from being a crisis, providing people with access to new lifesaving medicines, high tech diagnostic procedures and minimally invasive surgery is a sign of an advanced and prosperous economy. Good health means we are more productive so health spending is as much as an investment as it is an expenditure.

While it is encouraging that the new health minister has embarked on some of the reforms I proposed to her soon after taking office, this budget locks in some of the most damaging cuts introduced in last year's budget, changes that ripped out 50 billion dollars from hospitals. These cuts can only mean longer waiting times in emergency departments and longer waiting times for necessary surgery.

This budget also dismantles the National Partnership Agreement which means less support for dental health making it harder for people to see a dentist, cuts to health promotion programs and other front-line health services. Worse still there is no plan for mental health and no funding.

This budget also comprehensively fails to address affordable housing and homelessness. Housing affordability in Australia has reached a crisis point. One in two hundred Australians are experiencing homelessness, there are over 240,000 families languishing stuck on social housing waiting lists.

Last year saw Hockey's razor gangs cut over half a billion dollars for homelessness and affordable housing programs, along with the axing of key peak organisations providing a voice Australia's most vulnerable, the very people suffering from the consequences of these cuts. This budget locks in those changes.

These cuts included $235 million from the National Rental Affordability Scheme which would have seen 12,000 new affordable rental homes delivered and the $44m ripped from the National Partnership on Homelessness which would have built new homelessness shelters and emergency accommodation for people fleeing domestic violence. The Prime Minister proudly trumpets his national security credentials but he has done nothing to address the security of women across the county who are victims of domestic violence.

The government's first year in office was dominated by talk of debt, deficits and the ongoing budget emergency and no claim was too outrageous. When in opposition they claimed that the country was headed for a disaster to compare with the Great Depression or modern-day Greece.

We were on track to default with our debt, we were an international pariah and we had a third-world economy. Last year the Treasurer went so far as to say that "the cupboard is bare, there is no money left in the till"- effectively declaring the nation bankrupt.

Their strategy was clear. This a government that believes that small government is the best government; that public assets should privatised; and that lower taxes and cuts to government services are the only pathway to prosperity. For the Coalition these are articles of faith.

In an attempt to bring the Australian community on board with its brutal agenda it talked up the structural budget deficit to create public support for drastically cutting government expenditure. By making a commitment to keep the tax-to-GDP ratio fixed below the 2007-08 level of 23.7 per cent, it prosecuted the argument that we must tighten our belts and make deep cuts.

But this was always motivated by politics rather than any sound economic policy. And the Australian community didn't buy it.

Australia's debt crisis is a fabrication; our level of public debt is amongst the lowest in the OECD. Far from being a crisis we are the envy of most other governments. In fact making deep cuts at a time when unemployment is rising and commodity prices are dropping simply in order to reach an artificial timetable for surplus is motivated by politics rather than evidence.

Borrowing money makes good sense when the jobs market is softening and when interest rates are low and allow us to invest in productivity enhancing infrastructure.

The real picture about the Australian economy is at odds with the government's agenda. Cuts to services won't deliver a more productive economy and we can no longer ignore the issue of government revenue.

What better place to start than the billions in subsidies going to big business each year. If the Government is serious that the "Age of Entitlement" is over then let's abolish the huge handouts going to mining corporations each year in fuel rebates and depreciation benefits.

Rather than cutting Medicare let's reinvest the $7 billion dollar handout to the private insurance industry directly into health services.

Let's have a real debate about the benefits of the huge concessions that go towards superannuation, capital gains tax and negative gearing.

Although they might not appear on the annual budget figures, these enormous tax concessions divert huge sums of money away from government services and infrastructure into the hands of wealthier Australians. They cost us billions and strip money away from the services that Australian's want and deserve.

If we are serious about removing the inequity within the taxation system, from one that looks after the big end of town, to one where the wealthy pay their fair share, then we need to make sure that governments are willing to make the hard decisions, and stand up to vested interests.

The Greens believe that big miners, the big banks and big polluters should pay their fair share.

The Parliamentary Budget Office has fully costed our platform, which raises almost $80 billion over the forward estimates, and proves we can raise the revenue we need to pay for the Australian society we want: one that is more caring, innovative and healthy, one where our children aren't condemned to experience the impacts of global warming.

It is my firm believe that Australians want to live in a caring nation - where you can afford to go to the doctor, where quality childcare is affordable and where public transport is world class.

Taxing super contributions on a progressive scale will help us get there. It would mean the end of the use of superannuation as a tax haven for the wealthy, while helping people on lower incomes to save more for their retirements.

The Greens proposal would see the current flat superannuation tax rate of 15% replaced with a progressive system closely based on a person's marginal income tax rate, and bring in $10 billion, over the forward estimates.
If we move to the multinational tax avoidance measures announced in the Budget - let me say, that the Greens have been at the forefront of calls for government to act.

While the measures announced on Tuesday look good on paper, there is not one cent of revenue allocated to this in the budget papers, and no plan for enforcing the laws we need to ensure the big multinationals pay their fair share of tax.

How can the ATO prosecute corporate tax dodgers when their staffing numbers have been gutted? Where was the reversal to these damaging cuts?

Now, I have said that as new leader of the Greens that I want outcomes.

Good outcomes for people: for our kids and our grandkids.

Good outcomes for the environment: for nature and for the land which feeds and clothes us.

Whenever we think we can find common ground in service of the Australian people we will work with all sides to deliver those good outcomes.

That is our job as legislators and I take it seriously.

But I remain sceptical of this Prime Minister and his government. We will run a fine tooth comb over whatever they propose. We are not out to get deals just for the sake of getting a deal.

I have said that we would look at the assets test on pensions but we also need a comprehensive review of the sustainability of the retirement system as a whole. When you consider superannuation concessions will surge from $32 billion to a massive $50 billion a year in 2018, it's clear that something isn't working.

When it comes to child care we want to see people have access to quality, affordable child care.

I welcome the renewed focus on helping families, but we're still being held hostage by a Government that refuses to understand the negative impacts that cutting family tax benefit changes will have on sole parents and their kids. Why are we being asked to pick favourites - choosing one family over another?

Surely if we value the importance of early childhood education, as well as encouraging women to get back into the workforce, and supporting low income parents and families, we wouldn't be asked to choose between them.

The Government's backflip on support for small business is welcomed. It is a cynical move when one considers that the government axed small business support last year, ripping out $5.4 billion in support, and only a year later we are told that they are the champions of small business.

The tax-deduction for asset purchases will only last two-years, thus providing a sugar hit for the sector and broader economy but there is no long-term ongoing support for small business. We will examine the measures closely to make sure this package is genuine, long-term support.

What fundamentally separates this government from the Australian people is that Australians, believe that their government has a role in building a fairer, more caring society. Australians want high-quality health care and well-funded schools. They take comfort from the knowledge that a caring government will help people from falling through the cracks.

Paul Keating said, "When you change the government you change the country." A year and half into the first term of the Abbott government his words have never been more relevant.

Through two successive budgets the Abbott government has made its mark, or "stamped its Authority" as the Prime Minister would say, on nearly every aspect of Australian life: on winding back action on climate change, on attacking the poor, the sick and the vulnerable.

In a short time this government has shown no reluctance to use its power to reshape Australia according to their narrow ideology.

Like most Australian's the Greens want a society where everyone can afford quality health care and education, a society where there isn't a vast gulf between rich and poor and where our natural environment is protected.

We don't subscribe to the dog eat dog agenda of this government.

We don't want a world where it's everyone for themselves, where if you're lucky enough to be born into privilege and wealth you deserve more of it and if not, well tough luck.

There is another way and tonight I pledge to lead the fight for a more decent, more caring and more compassionate country.

 

 

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