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Thursday, 23 September 1999
Page: 10433

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (5:30 PM) —In one of the most famous literary exchanges Australia has experienced, the Bulletin , amidst the turmoil of the 1890s depression, featured a series of contributions from Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. The theme was a simple one, as you would know, Mr Speaker: the city versus the bush. Lawson, in his hard-hitting style, would emphasise the uncertainty, trials and tribulations of country life while Paterson, in his own style of romantic prose, would remind us of the intangible benefits of the lifestyle, space and freedom that country life can offer. Between these two great poets lay a gulf in experience and of perspective. It is a gulf that remains relevant a century later.

Conservative governments, both at the federal and state levels, are finally being held accountable by those in rural and regional Australia who feel left out. While the politicians, Kennett, Howard, Costello and others, tell Australians how good things are, those in the bush are asking the question: where is our share? In Victoria they have just asked Jeff Kennett why, despite representing a quarter of the work force, they have received just 7.5 per cent of the new jobs in the past three years. They are asking the Prime Minister and Treasurer why it is that economically depressed communities bear so much of the burden of economic change. They will soon be asking why the top end of town is getting such massive tax relief when those who are struggling get their services and assistance cut.

The Victorian election result reminds us that not everyone is sharing the benefits of economic growth. The Howard government has left individuals, families and communities without the essential support services they need to feel included in modern Australia. Like the Kennett government the Howard government will be punished for that because, while the city versus the bush debate is one that still figures in the Australian psyche, no-one believes that is justification to exclude such a significant number of Australians from full participation in society. The Howard government, like the Kennett government, claims to be about economic modernisation. But the economic issue that presents the greatest challenge is the shift towards a knowledge based economy, and that has been left unattended. It involves issues of research and development, innovation, investment in human capital and investment in the infrastructure that supports a forward looking economy and society. These issues affect all parts of Australia.

Economic modernisation for the Howard government, like the Kennett government, has been about cutting costs. It has been about closing schools, cutting education funding, extending hospital waiting lists, removing services from depressed areas and removing the support systems that underpin our social sanity. All of these have hit economically depressed areas the hardest. While all of this is hitting those in depressed areas, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer will go down in history for squandering billions of taxpayers' dollars on tax relief for those who are doing well. The new economy increasingly rewards those with high skills. The focus of government should be on helping those without those skills. I am clearly a supporter of globalisation and economic reform, but I also believe that governments have a responsibility to protect society's vulnerable. The Howard government is unique in not having that capability. When governments become obsessed with cutting essential services, when they seek to undermine what it means to live in a community and when they start to believe that the only way forward is to divide and rule, they lose not only the faith of the people but also their moral legitimacy. The message is clear: we must complement economic reform with policies that can take with it those who would otherwise be left behind. Those of us charged with that responsibility should not pretend that the task is easy, but we should not be so irresponsible as to throw away the potential for investment in those individuals, families and communities that need it most and call it economic modernisation.

We cannot take the path of rejecting change, but we must see change for what it is—a challenge, not a choice. But I believe it is a challenge this government has failed to understand. Where you live, where you go to school and your family and social support networks all still impact significantly on your life chances. Just ask the thousands of Victorians who have chosen to vote Labor for the first time ever. The issue of location is as important to Australians today as it was a century ago.

Our economically depressed communities have been missing from the unemployment debate for far too long. Improving living standards and opportunities in our most economically depressed areas is essential if we are to give meaning to the notion of equality of opportunity. Regional Australia is crying out for support, and it delivered this government a message last Saturday. (Time expired)