In the News
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (2.56 pm)—My question is to the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, the Minister for Education and the Minister for—ahem—Social Inclusion.
Honourable members interjecting—
Mr HAWKE—Well, I didn’t give her that title!
The SPEAKER—Order! The member will get to his question.
Mr HAWKE—I refer the minister to the fact that, before the Primary Schools for the 21st Century program was announced in February, schools in New South Wales were charged $285,000 to construct a seven-core modular library. Minister, considering the Annangrove Public School in my electorate is now being charged $727,000 for the same library under the Primary Schools for the 21st Century program and already has a functioning library, and that the P&C wanted a hall built instead, does the minister maintain that this represents value for money?
Opposition members interjecting—
The SPEAKER—Order! The question has been put, and then we have interjections on blank air, even before the question has started to be responded to. Members on my left will remain quiet.
Ms GILLARD (Lalor—Minister for Education, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and Minister for Social Inclusion)—I thank the member for Mitchell for his question. I think it is a bit unfortunate that he cannot say the words ‘social inclusion’ without choking, because I would have thought that kind of fair and decent treatment of all Australians ought to be an objective shared by all members of the House. Clearly I am wrong about that. The member for Mitchell raises with me the question of building costs under the Building the Education Revolution program. The member for Mitchell has raised this with me in the past in relation to the Baulkham Hills school in his electorate, which he raised in this parliament. What he raised at that time was an assertion that the school was being asked to accept a new hall rather than an extension to an existing hall. In making that claim in this parliament, the member for Mitchell was wrong. Having investigated the matter, of course the school is not having its hall pulled down. The proposal is to have the existing hall back-converted to provide two classrooms and to have a new hall built.
Ms Julie Bishop—Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. This may have been an answer to a previous question. We are asking about Annangrove Public School, and I would ask the minister to be brought back to this question.
The SPEAKER—The Deputy Leader of the Opposition will resume her seat. The Deputy Prime Minister is responding to the question.
Ms GILLARD—I was asked about matters relating to building costs under the Building the Education Revolution program. I am simply making it clear to the member for Mitchell—who I assume is interested in schools in his electorate and, consequently, would be interested in the answer—that the assertion that he made in this parliament about Baulkham Hills High School is not correct. The member has come in today and made an assertion about another school in his electorate. I am sure I would be forgiven for making the remark, given that the current average of the member for Mitchell for raising these matters accurately in this parliament is zero. I will look at the matter he has raised with me, test whether or not it is ccurate and respond to it—but, of course, the member for Mitchell made an inaccurate statement in this parliament last time he questioned me. I will test whether or not his current claims are accurate. On the basis of his track record, one needs to be very sceptical about the things said by the member for Mitchell in this place.
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (2.38 pm)—My question is to the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Minister for Education and Minister for Social Inclusion. I refer the minister to the Baulkham Hills North Public School, in my electorate, which was awarded $2.45 million— Government members interjecting—
Mr HAWKE—You can explain it to me later, Albo.
The SPEAKER—The Leader of the House will come to order!
Mr HAWKE—for a new hall under the government’s Building the Education Revolution program. Minister, why is it, after months of discussions to extend the existing hall, this school is being forced to accept a new hall, which only provides an extra 30 square metres of floor space? This would seat, at most, an extra 50 students. Does the minister accept that spending an extra $2.45 million—or about $81,500 per square metre, to seat 200 out of 650 students—is value for money?
Ms GILLARD (Lalor—Deputy Prime Minister)—I thank the member for Mitchell for his question. I thank him for so clearly going through my portfolio titles. If he wants a summary, we of course stand for fairness and decency in education and at work. You stand for neither—neither fairness nor decency. That was made very clear by the Leader of the Opposition on the weekend, and it is made clear every day by your shadow minister through his absence of policies.
Mr Pyne—Mr Speaker, I rise on a point of order. The minister was asked a very clear question about value for money and I would ask you to draw her to the question.
The SPEAKER—The Deputy Prime Minister is responding to the question. Perhaps a little less debate would be helpful. The Deputy Prime Minister has the call.
Ms GILLARD—The member for Mitchell raises with me a Building the Education Revolution project in his electorate. There are 41 schools in his electorate. They have been awarded 93 projects at a cost of just over $81 million. I think it is to be regretted that he opposes each and every one of those projects in each and every one of his 41 schools. He has raised with me the details of an individual project. Obviously I would need to check the assertions in his question—I have found out, by dint of long experience, that most of the questions raised by the opposition do not stand up to any scrutiny when the claims are held up to the light. But I will look at the assertion that the member for Mitchell has made and will come back to him about the matter. I trust that, in the same spirit, he will go back to each of his 41 schools and explain to them that he is opposed to expenditure in those schools, he is opposed to the new projects, he is opposed to assistance to schools in 9,500 schools around the nation and he is opposed to the local jobs that it will support.
Mrs Bronwyn Bishop—On a number of occasions, the Deputy Prime Minister has promised to come back to the House. I would ask that she come back before the end of question time, for once.
I rise today to congratulate the Senate on rejecting the Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities, and Other Measures) Bill 2009. This represents a great win for students on university campuses across Australia, who now no longer have to pay the $250 that was proposed by the government for the privilege of attending university.
The minister for youth and for sport, yesterday in the House, proceeded to instruct us that students around the country were devastated at the news that this bill had been rejected by the Senate. I can record for the House that every single student I have spoken to, subsequent to the rejection of this legislation, far from being devastated, is in fact delighted that they no longer have to turn up to university and pay a $250 fee for the privilege. This is a great boon for students.
We also had the minister regale the House that this was some sort of ideological extremism, as if having a different view makes you extreme, as if rejecting the imposition of a $250 tax on students were somehow ideological. The reason that students around the country oppose such retrograde legislation is that they have the right to choose what to do with their own money. If you are putting forward the proposition that, if you ran a university campus you could not provide services to students, such as at the University of Sydney, with 30,000 students, and turn a profit through food service provision, let me tell you: I do not think that is a valid proposition; I think that is total nonsense. There are 30,000 students at the university I went to. There is plenty of scope for a person to choose their own food, to choose their own services and pay for services that they require. They do not need a student body, or a student service representative organisation, to choose for them. They do not need to be taxed for the privilege of going to a university campus.
Ever since the passing of the Higher Education Support Amendment (Abolition of Compulsory Up-front Student Union Fees) Act, what we have seen on campus is a rebirth of the ability of people to choose with their own money. When I went to university you would pay up to $400 a semester for the privilege of joining a union that you did not want to join. Freeing up students from joining such an organisation compulsorily has been of great benefit—they have enjoyed that new freedom and life has continued on campuses all around Australia.
Funnily enough, the minister seemed to want to regale us with a tale of how things were devastated on campuses, how student life—of course, we do not understand what the term means; I think it is supposed to mean hanging out at bars, listening to music and those sorts of things—had somehow stopped, somehow these things had ceased since the abolition of the compulsory unionism model. Far from ceasing, life has continued. Western Christian democracy has gone on. The world continues to revolve around the sun. Students now have more money in their pockets to make their own choices. They can choose the services that they wish to have, the services that are best for them—and they can do that without the aid of a body that they do not wish to be a member of.
The minister for youth and sport seemed to want to say, ‘We will be back with this legislation’, as if somehow the imposition of this tax on students was a top priority of the Rudd government, one of the first things that it would seek to do, at a time when what we see in Australia is a downturn in the economic climate. We see many people who are young being unable to access employment. Why would any government in this climate seek to impose an extra burden on students for the privilege of going to a university? Why would the minister for youth and sport say, as she did in question time, that somehow people in lower socioeconomic demographics would somehow be worse off through the rejection of this measure? It is self-evidently the case that students who come from lower socioeconomic demographics are now demonstrably $250 better off than they would have been if this government had its way, and that helps the people who have the least money the most. I applaud the Senate for standing up for students around this country and rejecting the notion of taxing students for the right to go to university.
I rise today to speak on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2009 and the Renewable Energy (Electricity) (Charge) Amendment Bill 2009. I think in the same way that all members of this House are rising to praise the idea that we need to be looking at alternative sources of energy, and particularly renewables. I think the search for a source of energy that is renewable and that has as little impact on the environment as possible is an objective which all members of this House would have no trouble supporting and indeed taking steps towards. This is a very noble objective, and that is why I think it is regrettable that we have seen in the last week important legislation such as this before us being coupled to other legislation unnecessarily in a way that delayed the ultimate success of this very important piece of legislation on renewables.
The primary aim of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2009 is to set in place a renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020. I think that is a wonderful thing. I think the alliteration of ‘20 per cent by 2020’ is a wonderful success for the highly paid political adviser who no doubt came up with it. But, on a serious note, of course we ought to be seeking an objective, and 20 per cent by 2020 is not a bad place to start. I think this government ought to think very seriously about the steps it is taking in terms of supporting our renewable industries, because we have seen a lot of confusion and lack of serious focus on how to get the renewable market up and running. In the mechanisms of this bill we see another attempt by the Rudd government to set up a renewable energy industry. The story of the last year, since the election of the Rudd government, has been a series of measures which have led to a lot of confusion in the industry. One of the themes that we have seen over the last week in terms of responses to climate change and the emissions trading scheme has been about providing industry with certainty and providing business with certainty.
Of course, if you have been in the solar industry since the election of the Rudd government then the last thing you would have had over the past 18 months is any certainty. That lack of certainty has been to the great detriment of the solar industry in Australia. When the Rudd government, suddenly and without warning, scrapped the $8,000 rebate, there was a mad rush of applications to get in before the last day of the deadline. Many people missed that deadline, and I had a number of them make representations to me. I had a number of representatives of the solar industry in New South Wales contact me about that. I lament with them the fact that these decisions were taken without warning and without notice.
Certainly I thought that the attitude of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts here in this place, when he said that the problem he was trying to solve was that the solar industry was overheating, sort of revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of what the government is trying to do with all of its settings that it puts into place. Governments are not there to subsidise continually the behaviour of every person in every sense; we are attempting to create a viable market, something which can sustain itself, ultimately—and as quickly as possible, I might add. So the fact that there was a great demand for solar panels —and the proposition was that it was overheating; that there was too much demand and that the system had gotten to a point where demand was very simulated— is something I think we ought to really celebrate and rejoice about.
However, this is an attempt to rejig the solar industry. Hopefully, this will lead to a situation where there is more certainty in the solar market, because in the last 18 months there has been a litany of decisions that have not provided certainty. I do not think you would find a genuine solar industry representative who would come forward and say, ‘We’ve had a very certain 18 months.’ Indeed, one of the successes of the Howard government was the solar panel rebate in creating the foundations of a market for a sustainable renewable like solar power. If you look at some of the comments, I think that is backed up by many people. Some of the managing directors of different solar companies made comments like, ‘This is the third setback for the solar industry in as many weeks,’ when the rebates were scrapped. There were other comments, such as that they were promised smooth transitions from the $8,000 rebate to the new solar credit scheme, which was pulled with only hours of notice. I think the retrospectivity of it in terms of the renewable energy targets policy was to be regretted.
There is an elephant in the room in relation to energy policy. Certainly renewable energies are to be lauded, but there is also something else that we as a place ought to consider, and that is the viability of nuclear power. Though not specifically addressed in this bill, I think it is important, because while we search for renewable energies—and this legislation before us is an attempt to set the foundations for a market—there is no contention that renewables will be able to provide us with our baseload power into the future. We need to look at options for baseload power generation that will enable us to meet our emissions targets and deal with the problems that we are facing with climate change.
Australia has one of the highest per capita rates of greenhouse gas emissions in the world, primarily because of our reliance on fossil fuels. So, given that undesirable outcome for Australia that we have one of the highest per capita emissions in the world, if we are serious about tackling this then we ought to seriously consider alternative energies that will be sustainable, and there is no proposition that renewables will provide our baseload power into the future. So, while I am a very strong supporter of the renewable energy industry—whether it be geothermal, solar or more power from hydro plants and all of the wonderful things that come with that and the clean energies that can be provided—I believe it is not the case that this is a serious option at this point in time for baseload power generation. Therefore, as a parliament looking forward into the future of this country, we need to consider very seriously that with our uranium reserves and our ability to develop a nuclear industry we can generate the power we need in a cleaner way, with a substantial supplement from renewables and a viable renewable market.
This legislation replaces the solar rebates with a solar credit scheme which issues renewable energy credits to the installers of solar panel systems of 1.5 kilowatts per hour or less. These credits can be traded on a market for a return of between $4,000 and $4,500 for a common solar panel system. This is a mechanism which I endorse. Market based mechanisms are something which we know works and something which can provide a platform for future arrangements.
It is interesting to note that this government seems to lurch from policy to policy in relation to markets. When they are running for election they love markets; when they get into government they hate them. When we are dealing with climate change they seem to discover their enjoyment of market based mechanisms again.
But never mind the inconsistency and the inconsistent signals we get out of this government in relation to market mechanisms. Market mechanisms, without any doubt, work. If we are unable to use them as part of our arsenal in dealing with climate change, then we are not serious about handling the challenges that we face as a country. I 100 per cent endorse the concept of creating viable markets as a powerful mechanism for dealing with climate change or the problems caused by the pollutants created by industry.
I think it is regrettable that this legislation is before us after the last week. We have heard a lot of derision from the government but not a lot of openness to negotiating about what is a very important matter. Finally, the government has relented, decoupled this bill and sought to bring it here as its own individual bill, which it always should have been, because I believe that renewables will enjoy the support of members in this place and enjoy the support of the community in terms of what government action will be taken.
The opposition is proposing amendments, and those amendments are very important, especially given the fact that we are looking at the coverage of the aluminium sector for both its existing targets and expanded renewable energy target liabilities to the 90 per cent already offered by the government for the latter. I think those amendments are worth while. I think the government ought to consider them. If they are serious about renewables, if they are serious about making this the best possible scheme that they can, then they ought to be negotiating on these very important matters.
Many of the government backbenchers say they believe that we are in the biggest crisis of our time.
We have heard that very dramatic language. I have seen Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister, stand in front of a camera at the Great Barrier Reef and say that, if we do not act, this will no longer be here. That is the Prime Minister of the country standing in front of a television camera and, with quite a high degree of alarmism, warning that a great iconic piece of Australia may not be here if we do not act. If those things are true, then I believe the government ought to be here in this chamber negotiating very seriously with us about this legislation and about the emissions trading scheme legislation and, in particular, accepting the very good ideas that are being put forward by the opposition in the form of amendments to this legislation.
In summary, I think it is easy to say that this House, and I particularly, will almost certainly go on to endorse what is an important step in our energy generation process. Renewables will play an important role in Australia’s future. However, I do not think we should blind ourselves to the fact that we need to be considering very seriously the next step in baseload energy generation into the future. But I endorse this legislation.
I rise this morning to speak about the remarkable efforts of one of my constituents, Mr Brian King, and his family on behalf of his daughter, Erin King, who attended St Gabriel’s School for Hearing Impaired Children within my electorate.
Mr Brian King has just completed a remarkable feat: he scaled Mount McKinley in the United States as part of an attempt to raise funding for the very important expansion of the St Gabriel’s school. Mr King many years ago had an accident where a piece of industrial machinery fell on his foot and his foot had to be reconstructed, which, on reflection, makes his achievement all the more remarkable.
He approached this task with a determination to do something for St Gabriel’s School for Hearing Impaired Children because it is one of those icons of my community that has delivered so much benefit to so many children for a very long time now. I commend St Gabriel’s School for Hearing Impaired Children because it is now expanding.
From next year it will be accepting enrolments from children with a range of disabilities, not simply hearing impaired children. The principal, Kathy Freeman, who has recently come to the school, is continuing a very fine tradition of management of the school and is expanding the enrolment to include children with intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome and autism.
It is one of those schools within our community that is very well regarded as an institution that delivers fantastic outcomes for kids. The move is part of a plan to expand a series of specialised schools and strengthen the longevity of these institutions. It is something that I of course support.
I think that, from the point of view of government, we should also seek to ease the path for those institutions that operate in highly specialised areas of disability and are now looking to expand their endeavours to ensure their ongoing survival. They are doing it in a way which I find very innovative and which will continue to provide a very high level of service in many areas of disability while also branching out into some new ones.
As I have mentioned in this place before, in the north-west of Sydney there is a shortage of services for children with disabilities. We are often missed in the government funding formulas, particularly at the state level, because of the apparent wealth and socio-demographics of my area. However, disadvantage still exists and is often hidden.
Therefore it is left to institutions like St Gabriel’s School for Hearing Impaired children to take up the slack. It does that in an outstanding fashion and does a lot of the work that the government cannot and will not do in my area.
I commend Mr King for his fundraising efforts for this fantastic school.