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Tuesday, 20 June 2000
Page: 17791


Mr PROSSER (9:45 PM) —I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2000-2001. Speaking on appropriations offers us time to reflect on where we are at and where we are going. To some it may seem dry and boring, but it is a blueprint for the nation. I come from the electorate of Forrest, which is a regional electorate. There has been a lot of attention paid to regional Australia of late, not undeserved, and there are some commentators who are saying that the city-rural divide is as significant as the capital-labour divide. I am not convinced that this is so; however, as a regional member of parliament I can appreciate the frustration experienced by people living in rural and regional Australia in terms of service provision, declining population, and, because of transport costs, the high cost of living.

Australia is approximately the size of western Europe. Although it tempted explorers with promises of great hope and plenty it also has places that bear names such as Lake Disappointment. Regional and rural Australia is a lot more than harsh terrain and vast distances. City dwelling Australians owe their country cousins a great deal. Australia used to ride on the sheep's back, as the expression goes, though our economy has developed and matured in the industries in which we are doing best. The minerals, resources and agricultural sectors are often amongst the most efficient in the world.

I am Chairman of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Resources, and we are currently inquiring into value adding. I can assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that a lot of GDP, whether in raw or value added content, derives from rural Australia. It contributes $70 billion towards our GDP, and 80 per cent of food produced in Australia is exported. Agricultural products generate some 21 per cent of our export income. Australia would be a poorer place if it were without rural and regional areas. The harshness of our country and the enduring pioneering spirit that comes to mind when we think of our country is born out of the tragedies and triumphs of those who work and make their lives in the country and on the land.

The problems rural and regional Australia experience can, in part, be attributed to long-term economic trends that we have and that occur beyond the control of government. These trends include mechanisation, which has meant that Australia's population has shifted. At the turn of the last century, two-thirds of Australia's population lived in rural areas; now just over one-third live in regional areas. Of that one-third, 15 per cent actually work on the land. These long-term economic trends gave rise to the view that the government neglected the bush and that it is the role of governments to implement a universal solution. This simply cannot be done. This fact is now being realised in the community. At one time representatives of communities would come to my office and say, `This is what is happening. What is government going to do about it?' These same representatives now come to me and say, `The community needs this or that and we, together with government and business, reckon we can achieve it.' The spirit of mutual obligation is now spreading and achievements on the ground are now starting to flow.

I was at a volunteering morning tea last week and I was struck by how many people felt it was their duty to give something back. They realise that nobody, including government, has all the answers, nor do we pretend to. The only way to move forward is to start somewhere and to do something real and tangible that will make a difference to people's lives. Rural and regional Australia has a wonderful community network. That network can achieve more working together than any individual wanting to make an improvement ever could. The determination that I see demonstrated in communities in my electorate is remarkable. They will hold their country values, they will stay on the land and continue to produce and they will grow as a community.

In the course of the debate I have heard Labor members deride government programs such as the Rural Communities Program, Rural Plan and the Regional Assistance Program. Members opposite suggested dollops of funds will have no effect because Canberra is not telling communities how funds should be used. What a preposterous notion that is. I am proud to be part of a government where the community tell us what their views are as to the priorities and that we, in partnership with the community, assist them.

The view the opposition hold, that they know best and Canberra knows best and will dictate the solution, is arcane. Not only that, but the opposition were in power for some 13 years and rural and regional Australia was declining then and what did they do? Nothing, Madam Deputy Speaker. Now that Labor consider there may be votes in these issues they have gone out on a regional tour. I am beginning to believe the opposition have a complete irony bypass. They criticise the government's concrete plans for funding announced in the budget, but stated in the estimates hearings that they will tell rural and regional Australia what their policies are only when they achieve government. In one breath the opposition criticise and harp about how there is not enough spending on core areas and, in the next, criticise the size of the surplus. No matter how they try to revise history, the fact remains that by the end of this budget period we will have paid back $50 billion of their $80 billion debt from increased spending. That is a fact which, of course, no-one can escape from.

Whilst the opposition harps, the government will go on delivering. One of the major disparities between metropolitan and non-metropolitan Australia is access to health and community services. Men and women in rural areas have a four-year shorter life expectancy than their city counterparts. They have a 15 per cent higher risk of coronary heart disease. Death rates from injury are up 22 per cent. Perhaps the most stark statistic is that, for every 1,000 people in the city, there is one doctor, but in regional areas—just outside metropolitan areas—there are 1,500 people for every doctor and, of course, some communities do not have a doctor at all.

This government is doing the things that need to be done in delivering concrete solutions here and now. The $562 million dedicated to health in rural and regional Australia is the largest ever effort to correct the imbalance between rural and city health. The key planks include $210 million over four years for more health professionals, of which $102.1 million will be used to immediately increase access to GP services in rural and regional areas. On top of this, many areas lack the full range of allied health services that are readily available in metropolitan areas, and many rural doctors are overcommitted in providing services that an allied professional could provide. The government has committed $49.5 million to increase the range of allied health professionals such as nurses, psychologists and podiatrists. Geographic distances have always exacerbated health problems. When it can take weeks to gain an appointment with a GP, or it is a several hundred kilometre round trip, understandably people put off going to see someone about minor problems and often these minor problems become major.

Over four years, $48.4 million will be committed to providing rural specialists through an outreach program, and $10.2 million will be committed to providing support to rural doctors in their regions, particularly those who are newly arrived. The key to making a difference is to ensure these reforms and funding measures make a difference not just now but in the longer term. This is why the government is committed to a $162 million package to further the training and educational needs of doctors and medical graduates.

Nine new clinical schools will be established. There will be 100 scholarship places per annum to new medical students in turn for a commitment to practice in regional Australia, a doubling of the rural Australian medical undergraduate scholarships and $4.3 million for graduating doctors to forgo HECS debt for every year they serve in an area of designated need over a five-year period. An amount of $68.9 million will top up the successful Regional Health Services program and enable 85 extra communities to access health services in this way. There will be $30.8 million for aged care facilities, $30.3 million for revitalising bush nursing and $41.6 million to provide assistance to pharmacies to start up or stay in business in areas of special need.

This is a comprehensive health plan, which has targeted and identifiable outcomes. It is not a vague promise but one that will be delivered. This package will improve health outcomes for rural and regional Australia and I am proud to be part of a government which is making a difference to the lives of these people, not only in my own electorate but across the nation.

As I indicated previously, access to service generally is an area that rural and regional Australia feel frustrated with. To run a business without having easy access to banking and other government agencies is a difficulty these people face. As my constituents tell me, the Internet is a wonderful thing but it does not solve all service provision problems. Folks who are based in a city take for granted services and the ease with which they can access these services. The government is taking measures to ensure that not only is there no further erosion of services but access is actually improved.

The trial between the Commonwealth Bank and licensed post offices and the excellent rural transaction centres will ensure that service levels are built back up. RTCs are a $70 million program over five years that will help small rural communities with populations of less than 3,000 to provide access to basic services such as banking, post, phone, fax, the Internet, Centrelink services and Medicare Easyclaim. This process has close community involvement as well as involving the whole of government approach. Ministers Anderson and Macdonald have been instrumental in trying to ensure that there is coordination and not duplication of services to regional areas at all levels of government, local, state and federal—a process which is now beginning to bear fruit.

Regional unemployment is also an area of disparity where country Australia bears a greater burden with high unemployment. Some of this was due to long-term economic trends, globalisation and mechanisation, which I referred to earlier. It is also the result of sucking population out of regional Australia, resulting in a downward spiral. Both regional communities and the government view this as a very serious matter.

Communities in my electorate have turned to tourism, promoting weekend getaways and sprouting cottage industries to supplement their rural base. Green tourism is another niche that communities in my electorate have been exploiting. These initiatives, often assisted by regional tourism programs, and combined with the natural beauty of my electorate, have meant that another avenue of employment has opened up. A good example is the explosion of dive tourism that is occurring in my electorate of Forrest in the south-west of Western Australia. First there was the gift to Western Australia of HMAS Swan, which was sunk off the coast off Busselton, resulting in a wonderful dive attraction. The Commonwealth also gifted HMAS Perth to the Western Australian government. That ship is to be sunk off Albany. The planned Busselton Underwater Observatory received $400,000 in Regional Assistance Program funding. These initiatives will generate real employment, not only on the initial project but in a flow-on to the service industries throughout the community.

Services and employment are major initiatives in the bush. They were identified in the Regional Australia Summit and the government is committed to addressing these issues. Another issue to come out of the Regional Australia Summit has been spoken of at length by those members opposite trying to score cheap political points on infrastructure. I agree that infrastructure is important, but the government spends within its means. There would be little point in spending on infrastructure if it meant that economic trends in Australia would suffer. Higher unemployment, interest rates and debt this country does not need. Significant investment in roads and rail has been made and regional and rural Australia will benefit from government taxation reform.

I want to take this opportunity to record how pleased I am that the government has delivered on its commitment to ensure that petrol prices need not rise in rural areas because of the GST. The Western Australian state government currently has a select committee inquiring into petrol prices in Western Australia. The issue of petrol prices and the differential between city and country is a complex one and I am sure the issue of price support that fuel companies provide to station owners will be scrutinised. Interestingly, as far as I am aware price support does not extend to service station owners outside metropolitan areas.

I do not have the time to address the budget measures aimed at families and the elderly, except to say that the Stronger Families and Communities strategy reflects strongly what I said earlier in my remarks: that we all have a responsibility to our communities and that the government's duty is to assist and nurture that. I want to touch on one more initiative that I know will be of great benefit to those farmers in my electorate who find themselves asset rich and cash poor. The improving of access to youth allowance by increasing the discount applied to farms from 50 to 75 per cent will be a welcome measure, as will be the 10 per cent increase in the boarding allowance.

Finally, I want to say that a lot has been made of what regional and rural Australia does not have, but not a lot has been said of what we do have, and that is real community. A natural warmth, a genuine concern for the neighbours and the community and a steely resolve to ensure that they survive together are things that you will not find in capital cities. This government recognised the importance of regional Australia and is determined to ensure that regional Australia not only survives but continues to be the economic backbone of our nation.