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Monday, 22 June 1998
Page: 5041

Mr WAKELIN (4:28 PM) —The previous speaker, the member for Lyons (Mr Adams), mentioned regional and rural Australia, and it is quite timely that my address is linked to that part of Australia which I come from as well. I will have a different approach to this topic because I believe that regional Australia has very positive opportunities currently and this will be very much so in the future.

In Australia we have 148 House of Representative seats. Of those, 62 are defined by the Australian Electoral Commission as rural or regional in nature. The government currently holds 49 of those seats and 15 of those were picked up at the last election. Non-metropolitan Australia generates about 80 per cent of our export income, and these figures will vary from year to year and will be debated depending on where you draw the lines on the map. We know we have the perennial industries of agriculture and mining, but increasingly we have processed product coming out of regional Australia and contributing to our export income. So no-one would question the contribution of regional Australia in economic terms as well as social and cultural terms. I think it is very important in this discussion that we see the urban-rural situation as the interdependent connection—that is, production from rural and regional Australia contributes to the standard of living in metropolitan Australia and vice versa.

If we think about that 80 per cent of export income for a minute or two, it makes a very powerful point at a time when we have a government that is quite determined to encourage exports and to manage the national debt and certainly the Commonwealth debt where it has the most control. By its policy of balanced budgets and the charter of budget honesty, the government can bring an effect which keeps maximum downward pressure on interest rates. We have the right environment in Australia to maximise export income from regional Australia.

As of 1 July, we will have a new allowance known as the youth allowance, which has been much requested. It is one of the longstanding requests that I am very pleased, as part of this government, to be able to deliver. The replacement of Austudy, particularly with rent relief, is a significant step forward for rural and regional students who have to study away from home. The taxpayer—and this gets back to the interdependent nature of our economy and people—is going to pick up a little more of the extra costs of education where students have to study away from home. No-one would question in this day and age the importance of higher education and developing the skills of our people.

The previous speaker talked about the telephone service and said that there was some potential threat. The reality in my electorate is that we have never had greater opportunities to improve our telecommunications and communications generally. With the networking the nation or regional telecommunications infrastructure fund, we have opportunities now to bring our communications system much more up to the standard that metropolitan people are used to—and we are already putting them into effect. Be it the Internet, a telecentre, a range of data provision services or whatever it might be, there is a very great determination to bring that service up to an appropriate standard.

I mention here the Eyre Regional Development Board and the work that it has been doing with consultants and the local community to look at preparing a submission to bring that part of Australia, which no-one would suggest at the moment is up to speed, up to speed over the next few years to the advantage and enhancement of the economy and the region at large. I congratulate those people. It is a great encouragement to see the government giving the support that it is in these policies, which would never have happened under the opposition.

In terms of access to regional health, I commend the government for the departments of rural health, which are very much part of our national scene in regional centres now as the focus is brought to bear on those issues which need greater attention in regional health delivery. There is one in my electorate—in Whyalla at the University of South Australia. With some very able people driving that process, I am very confident that we will see improvements to the range of choices and service delivery in the health of regional Australians.

The issue of access to Medicare funding is something that I have always had a particular interest in. The reality is that regional people do not access Medicare in the same way that metropolitan people do. It is important to recognise—we may need to look further at this—that the amount of money that is spent on regional health through Medicare per individual is not as great as it is in the metropolitan services. There may be a range of reasons for that, but we need to be very aware—I know this government is, particularly through its departments of rural health—that regional people do not access health services and, therefore, the cost is not the same as it is in metropolitan Australia.

The issue of native title has been much debated in this place. The thing that I want to reinforce here again today in my grievance is that not very often do you hear the opposition, or many metropolitan people for that matter, acknowledge that the greatest burden, just about the whole burden, of native title—the inconvenience, the reality of native title—falls on regional people, particularly on a small minority of people. I cannot express my frustration deeply enough for two groups of regional people—that is, Aboriginal people and those people who have native title claims on their properties. The tragedy of this issue is that we see something like $200 million going into legal activities which give no benefit to those on whose land the claim is made and absolutely no benefit to those for whom the claim is allegedly made. If that is not an absolute lesson in nonsense and stupidity, I do not know what is in this country.

I want to briefly finish today on the issue of fuel excise. Someone did some figures a long time ago which suggested that regional Australians pay about twice as much per head in excise as urban Australians. They pay 2c per litre on top of that for leaded fuel. The only place in Australia where leaded fuel is really an issue for the environment, as I understand it, is in the metropolitan areas. Not only do we in regional Australia pay a lot more for our fuel because of fuel excise but also we pay twice as much—it would vary in individual circumstances—and we have this insult of the extra 2c for leaded fuel where there is no real impact on our environment. So this fuel excise impacts not only on our daily lives in terms of domestic activity but on everything we do in business, mining and agriculture. This fuel excise may have been justified 30 or 40 years ago for a road repair fund, but it has moved on and now funds everything. The greatest inequity is that it falls doubly on regional Australians. That, I believe, is a matter for serious grievance.