In the News
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.
I rise today to record my support for the measures contained within the Veterans’ Affairs Legislation Amendment (Budget Measures) Bill 2009. This bill proposes a number of common-sense measures that will improve entitlements for veterans. This bill provides for the payment of entitlements, under the Veterans’ Entitlement Act 1986, to a person resident overseas into an overseas bank account. That is a common-sense measure which will bring those arrangements into line with other major Commonwealth agencies, and indeed all of the families of veterans who are overseas report to me that that measure is more than welcome.
However, I do want to particularly commend the extension of access to the Defence Service Homes Insurance Scheme. This bill will extend access to those persons who are eligible under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme and around 7,500 extra people will now be eligible for that insurance scheme. Coming from an electorate which is close to the Richmond RAAF base, where I have a number of people who are eligible for defence housing, plenty of suburbs in my electorate have defence housing, including Beaumont Hills and Kellyville, particularly for RAAF personnel. This extension is important and it is something that I want to particularly record my support for.
If personnel qualify and are eligible under the Defence Home Ownership Assistance Scheme then it is only logical that they ought to qualify for insurance as well. Defence personnel are often away from their homes. They are often in circumstances which prevent them from spending a lot of time concentrating on their dwellings or their household arrangements because we ask them to serve in faraway places, to go on exercises for prolonged periods, and to engage in activities that add extra stress and burden upon their families and their family homes. Therefore, this measure will be particularly welcome, and I think it is accurate to say that it will help with retention, recruitment and other benefits.
It is the case that many serving personnel and people who are considering service careers do consider the incentives and the attractions that are available to them to enhance their service and their career prospects. I recently had the opportunity to spend time on the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program speaking with all ranks of the military and all services from troops on the ground to service chiefs and vice chiefs. There is a very real sense that the entitlements and the incentives that the government provides to service personnel are deemed to be very important. This extension of the Defence Service Home Insurance Scheme to an extra 7,500 people is a good measure. I want to note in this place that, when you examine the cost, it is completely negligible compared with the amounts of money that we have been discussing in this place recently. For example, in 2009-10 the estimated financial impact to the Commonwealth is $0.2 million. In 2010-11 it is $0.2 million. In 2011-12 it is $0.3 million and in 2012-13 it is only $0.3 million as well.
Speaking to that point for a moment, the entire impact of this legislation that we are considering today is indeed quite negligible and I want to encourage governments of all persuasions to understand that the measures they take in relation to veterans are very important. Defence is a primary function of government. It is a proper function of government; therefore, veterans’ entitlements are a proper function of government as well. I think it is incumbent upon us in this place to ensure that we allow for the proper provision for people who serve us overseas.
When I visit various aged-care facilities in my electorate I find the most amazing veterans who served in World War II. I recently met an original Rat of Tobruk. It is a very profound experience to hear about their service and what they did. More typically today you will find personnel of the Vietnam veteran era moving through the entitlements system. We now have some challenges as a Commonwealth government with an entirely new generation of soldier who has served in new theatres with new methods of war including in the Middle East, including counterterrorism operations and including insurgency. This will create new challenges for those veteran categories.
I am pleased to say that within my electorate I have a very large veteran community, and the Castle Hill RSL does a fantastic job in organising that veteran community. Of course, with the proximity to the Richmond RAAF base we do see a lot of defence issues and defence housing issues. So that is all the more reason I think the extra access to the Defence Service Home Insurance Scheme is a good measure and something which I am pleased to be rising to support.
I do want to note while we have the opportunity that I think the third measure proposed by this bill, which is to wind up and pay out the dependants pensions paid to dependants of veterans, is a cost-saving measure and that is acceptable in some regards. It is an outdated scheme. I accept the arguments that have been put forward by members in this place, and when you examine the amounts and the lack of change over many, many decades there is a strong argument for this. I also do feel very strongly that in areas of defence and veterans’ affairs we ought not to be looking for cost savings in general and we should seek to ensure that those entitlements are properly accounted for in other ways.
Indeed, I was very impressed that when the Howard government first came to office in 1996 with an enormous budget deficit it quarantined Defence from any particular cuts. I thought that was a very impressive measure and something which all governments of all persuasions should seek to do. Defence and veterans’ affairs are areas where cuts and cost savings are perhaps not the best way to proceed in terms of governance, although we should look for efficiencies. It is certainly the case that the dependants pension system—which is referred to in this legislation and which is to be wound up—is out of date. You can see that when you consider that the maximum payments per fortnight for a partner and widows can be as low as $8.42 per fortnight or $2.86 per fortnight for children. Indeed, with minimum payments as low as 84c or 29c, clearly there is a need to restructure. I simply encourage the government to ensure that there is no loss of entitlement over time to dependants or to people who are dependants of veterans. Indeed, some of the information on how many people are affected or what kinds of people are being affected could be better explained in this legislation.
However, the scheme is obviously in need of a revamp. Everyone in this place will have no trouble supporting it. I simply note that it is very important that we continue to have a strong focus on the area of veterans’ affairs with whole new cohorts of young service men and now women moving through who have served in critical areas all around the world. We will have to have an intensified look at how we best deliver medical and practical outcomes to them with a whole new range of challenges. It is interesting to note that there are currently several critical reviews of veterans’ affairs, including a review into military superannuation.
When you speak with long-serving warrant officers in the Army, Air Force or Navy, they will recall to you that military superannuation is an issue of grave concern to service men and women. I would encourage the Rudd government to get on with ensuring these reviews are conducted speedily and that outcomes for serving personnel and veterans are looked at as soon as possible. People do see the defence forces as a difficult career. They see it as a big sacrifice and a big commitment. It is important that we structure the incentives and arrangements to allow them to do their job and to make a career of it. Much of the feedback that we received from the Australian Defence Force Parliamentary Program was that those incentives that had been removed, or those that over time had eroded in value, were becoming an impediment to careers within Defence. That is something that I want to record in this place.
Looking at the specific provisions in this legislation, on behalf of the veteran community in Mitchell I have received only positive feedback about these measures because they are simply common sense. They are allowing for existing Commonwealth arrangements in relation to bank accounts to be applied to veterans. They are extending the Defence Homes Insurance Scheme, which is a logical and welcome measure, and of course we are winding up a scheme which is no longer current. I simply record in this place my support for the legislation.
Mr HAWKE (Mitchell) (10.37 am)—I rise this morning to add my voice in opposition to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme Bill 2009. Unlike the previous member, I do question the government’s motives in relation to this piece of legislation. I think this is a purely political piece of legislation at the moment. This is not an environmental piece of legislation, and I think that is evidenced by the lack of detail that we see within the legislation.