Prime Minister Tony Abbott has defended billions of dollars of budget cuts saying the Government wants to “bear down” on middle-class welfare and is asking for some “sacrifices”.
Federal MPs have begun two weeks of sittings which will be dominated by the changes announced in the Abbott Government’s first budget, with senior ministers so far taking a hard line on the measures.
But the budget debate was side-tracked this afternoon by a Labor attack on the Speaker Bronwyn Bishop over the use of her official dining suite for a budget-night Liberal Party fundraiser.
The Opposition says it will pursue the matter through Parliament’s powerful privileges committee, after the Speaker ruled that “all members are entitled to use their suites for their own purposes, but of course not for illegal purposes”.
“Therefore it is not the business of either executive government or others to ask members the purpose for which they use their offices. That is the rule,” Mrs Bishop told Parliament.
Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke said Mrs Bishop was “trashing” the independence of the Speaker’s position.
“It never occurred to me that partisanship would go to effectively donating a venue to the Liberal Party,” Mr Burke said, adding that every other venue in Parliament would cost $600 to hire.
We are asking some sacrifices of our people
“The dining room that you’re afforded with is there for the many important diplomatic functions you host, for the many important charity events that you host. That’s what it’s there for.”
Mrs Bishop’s office said yesterday that there was nothing improper with the fundraiser saying: “All costs associated with Mrs Bishop’s private functions are charged to her private account and no taxpayer funds are used”.
Leader of the House Christopher Pyne said in Parliament today the Speaker’s fundraising dinner was “in no way” against “any rules of the Parliament”.
Government faces tough fight on budget measures
But the Government is preparing for a much bigger battle on the billions of dollars of budget measures which are facing an uphill battle in the Senate, including the $7 fee for GP visits, changes to the pension, hikes in the fuel excise and a radical reshaping of the higher education sector.
Labor is also fighting moves to freeze family payment levels and thresholds, and cut off payments of Family Tax Benefit B when the youngest child turns six.
“We do want to bear down on so-called middle class welfare,” Mr Abbott told Parliament.
“We were absolutely up-front in the budget about this – absolutely up-front in the budget about this – we must live within our means and living within our means means that handouts with borrowed money cannot continue in the way members opposite want.”
In Question Time, Mr Abbott also fought off Labor attacks over a $1.3 billion cut to the states and territories to pay for concessions for pensioners and seniors.
“We are asking some sacrifices of our people,” he said.
“This is a budget where all of us need to make a contribution so that all of us can be better off in the medium and long term.”
Pensioners and concession card holders could lose discounts on rates, power, water and public transport costs from July – though the Federal Government says it contributes only about 10 per cent of the total funding for the subsidies.
The Government is taking a tough line on whether it will cede any ground to get the measures through Parliament, even though the Prime Minister has already stated there will have to be some “horsetrading”.
There are only two more weeks of sittings for the current Senate, with the Greens holding the balance of power.
From July 1, that position will be shared by eight crossbenchers, including four either from, or affiliated with, the Palmer United Party.
Health Minister Peter Dutton, who has carriage of the GP “copayment” which will go towards a new medical research fund, says he will not budge on the measure.
“We believe very strongly that we have a package that is worth supporting and on that basis we are not for negotiating,” he said.
He has accused “some senators” of opposing the measure for “populist reasons”.
One of the Coalition’s veteran MPs, LNP Senator for Queensland Ron Boswell says selling the budget to constituents is a “hard slog”.
“To be honest I can’t say they’re overjoyed,” he said.
He said people believe there is “an equity problem, it’s falling on the lower income earners, more so that the high income earners or middle income earners.”
“It’s a hard slog out there we’re trying to sell it but it’s hard going.”
He said there will be a debate about the budget and public feedback in tomorrow’s Coalition party room meetings.