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Tuesday, 15 February 2000
Page: 13506

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (10:43 PM) —Prime Minister Howard has been beating around the bush lately, with little to show for it except to learn some home truths about living in rural and regional Australia. We are reliably informed that the Prime Minister was moved by the experience. He was emotional. He was determined to do something about the removal and decline of services to the bush. The trouble with Mr Howard's new found interest in the bush is that wanting to do something about the drain of brains, businesses, services and population in regional Australia is not the same as doing it. What regional Australia is still experiencing is often the result of this government's policies, and they do not look like changing the menu. Promises are not matched with reality. Let us have a look at some examples. In the lead-up to the 1998 federal election, Treasurer Peter Costello promised that the GST would not lead to an increase in petrol prices. Now the promise has been watered down; it is limited and is conditional. That no conditions were imposed in 1998, that no limits were suggested and that no differentiation had been made between `core' and `non-core' promises seem not to worry Mr Costello. It is quite clear that the Treasurer's Sydney based price of 77c a litre for petrol means that in areas where the base price exceeds this there will be a price rise once the GST is imposed.

The trouble in my region is that the price of petrol has been more than 80c for a long time. Indeed, on King Island the price is over $1. Unless the Treasurer changes the excise formula, regional Australia will suffer when the GST is enforced. But this is not the only case of this government's insensitivity towards regional Australia. We all heard with amazement the Treasurer's suggestion that regional workers should be paid lower wages than their city counterparts to stimulate economic activity in the bush.

The member for Page generously suggested that unemployed people in the regions should just pack up and move to the major cities to gain employment. Finance services minister, Mr Hockey, carried on a one-man media circus about price movements under the GST. Not only are people confused about the GST; they also genuinely fear that they will be worse off with this new tax. In his bush bash, the Prime Minister offered two responses to the plight of regional Australians: stop the withdrawal of government services and ease the suffering by selling the rest of Telstra and using the money to provide more infrastructure and services. But, Prime Minister, many in the bush already regard the sale of Telstra as a disaster, believing it not only symbolises the withdrawal of federal government services from the regions, but that since privatisation began communication services have diminished. This is clearly a bribe. The Prime Minister has no coherent regional policy or policies to tackle the inequalities facing regional Australia. For example, the government is now using part of the 16 per cent Telstra sell-off to fund a TV black spot program. It will not be enough and it should not rely on the sale of valuable public assets. Unless TV black spots are corrected, don't worry about which HD digital TV platform we will be using. People in these areas will get no reception whatsoevernone.

The satellite option for free-to-air services is now more readily available, however, at an unequal and unfair cost to users$1,500 to receive a satellite service with no local content and on top of that a 10 per cent tax. Basic TV reception should be a right, not a privilege. You probably do not know that; you probably just take it for granted. Regional people should not be made to feel or indeed expect that only by selling a valuable national asset will they receive their basic right.

Soon after the PM made his promise to stop the removal of government services from regional Australia, his employment and finance ministers together announced the withdrawal of Employment National from Tasmania. Minister Abbott described the Tasmania service as `a demoralised bureaucracy', while good friend Minister Fahey's concept of `right sizing' in Tasmania was to completely shut up shop—40 people declared redundant with 19 of these in Devonport and Burnie. So much for the Prime Minister's hand wringing in and about regional Australia. His bush bash is well known to have been done at a whim, without planning and was poorly timed. But what's new? This is the story in regional Australia and things do not look likely to change much.