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Thursday, 6 June 2002
Page: 3298

Mr BILLSON (10:32 AM) —I welcome the federal budget and the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2002-03 that we are discussing today. Treasurer Costello has delivered a forward looking yet frugal plan that faithfully implements all of the Howard government's election pledges. Beyond the key goals of keeping our nation safe and secure and our economy strong, the budget delivers in full on all of the government's national election pledges and, thankfully, all of the undertakings I gave to the community at a local level. To underline the importance of longer-term planning as part of governing responsibly, the government for the first time incorporated an Intergenerational Report that looks at the demands of our ageing population and what kind of spending pressures will influence government in 40 years time so that we can start planning for those impacts now. This look into the future should give us all confidence that decisions being made today are being shaped with an eye towards the longer term and also towards the demands and changing needs of our community.

The budget forecasts strong economic growth at 3¾ per cent for the coming year which, when combined with ongoing labour market and economic improvements, should reduce the rate of unemployment to at least six per cent. A budget surplus of $2.1 billion and a debt repayment plan that will have reduced the debt accumulated under previous Labor governments by $61 billion by the end of the next financial year will continue to provide a pro-employment, pro-investment, low inflation and low interest rate business environment.

In the aftermath of September 11, defence spending will be increased by $1.3 billion over 2000-01 levels, bringing total defence spending in the coming year to $14.1 billion as part of the government's efforts to ensure that we are properly resourced against the war against terrorism. New funding of $1.3 billion over five years will create a new east coast based defence tactical assault group—a permanent instant response capability and a doubling of the Australian Federal Police's strike team capability—in a targeted upgrade of our domestic security and response readiness. Our strong border protection regime that has ensured no unauthorised both arrivals to Australia since December last year will be bolstered with a funding increase of $908 million over the next four years in a measure that I believe is strongly supported by the people of the Dunkley electorate.

It was interesting to listen to the shadow minister for the environment having a go at the link between border protection and the wellbeing of our environment. The Labor spokesman on the environment fails to recognise that we need to protect against not only threats of war and terrorism but also the insidious impact of introduced species, organisms, pests, plants and animals that can wreak havoc across our great nation. This expenditure not only ensures our safety and our wellbeing but also goes to protect our biodiversity and the integrity of our national natural systems and also reinforces the security of those natural systems that make a significant contribution to our economy and make this mega diverse continent one of the very special places in the world.

The link between that expenditure on protecting our borders and the wellbeing of our environment is very clear. It disappoints and saddens me that the key spokesperson from the Labor Party on issues concerning the environment cannot see that connection. If fungi, plant species, pest animals and diseases affect our crops and native bird life, if we have weed problems, which we have, from aquarium plants clogging up some of our rivers and waterways, surely the Labor spokesman on environment matters can see the very obvious impact on our environment, our natural systems, our economy and our national wellbeing. That link is very clear to me, and I hope that on reflection it will also be clear to the Labor spokesperson on the environment.

The government will spend over $1.8 billion to protect our environment in the next financial year—$198 million more than 2001-02. This is a record level of expenditure for any Commonwealth government and underpins the Howard government's credentials as the greenest government this nation has seen. It is a deserving recipient of an award from the World Wide Fund for Nature that was discussed in this place yesterday for some of these environmental measures.

Through this budget, we have delivered on key election promises such as developing a new national coastal policy and the national rescue effort for the Murray-Darling Basin. The Natural Heritage Trust will be extended for the next five years, with a further $1 billion injection. Together with the $1.4 billion National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality, this represents the greatest commitment by any Commonwealth government to the environment since Federation. These are big numbers: $1.4 billion is $1,400 million—an enormous commitment to the national action plan on top of the $1,000 million being spent through the Natural Heritage Trust.

One of the measures that it will support, as I mentioned, is the National Oceans Office—a new initiative that will develop the south-east regional marine plan to make sure that the environment we cannot see, that miraculous part of our ecology that is under water, is being properly managed not only for its sustainable use but to protect what is often unique biodiversity in that area. I have spoken before about how almost three-quarters of the marine life south of Australia, which we are responsible for, occurs nowhere else on the globe. Isn't that significant? We do not know what great mysteries are there beneath the water. This commitment will reinforce our responsibility for the exclusive economic zone, a vast area of this globe that our nation is responsible for. We will also put in place a marine plan for the Gulf of Carpentaria and the Torres Strait region.

There is also funding for in-service emissions testing of diesel and petrol vehicles and $2.1 million to implement the new national fuel quality standards legislation. I am delighted that, after many years of campaigning to highlight the benefits of LPG not only to our environment but also to commuters and users of commercial vehicles, it is now part of that legislation. There is a draft standard out there and we are receiving input through a consultation process. This is to make sure that, as we tread a little more lightly on the earth by using a transitional fuel like LPG in preference to fossil fuels, we are also securing improved air quality for our cities and communities. There is also $4½ million to promote eco-efficiency to reduce the use of resources and to cut pollution, waste and production costs in the packaging, construction and mining industries—all quite worthwhile things.

The other thing is that there is $38.7 million for the ongoing implementation of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act—a landmark piece of legislation that made sure the Commonwealth had a suite of tools to protect environmental biodiversity where it was threatened by some action, process or negligence. It is a targeted measure—quite a significant piece of microeconomic reform, in my view. To give you an example of how it operates, I can tell you that it is already being felt in, and will deliver benefits to, the area that I represent.

Those listening would be disappointed if I did not mention the Scoresby corridor and the Scoresby freeway project. I will not disappoint them: I will mention it. The Minister for Trade, who is at the table, had the good fortune to fly over it in a helicopter when we were arm-twisting our ministerial colleagues to recognise the virtue of this project; and thank you, Minister, for your support on that. The Scoresby transport corridor and in particular the freeway connect to my electorate of Dunkley. Why is that a big deal? It is a big deal because it is enormously significant to the community that I represent.

To give you an idea: there are 236 hectares of undeveloped industrial zone land in Frankston City alone—236 hectares of investment opportunities just waiting to happen, opportunities that are snuffed out and strangulated because the transport networks are so pathetic that, if you are using the land to produce some high-value exports, getting those products to ports and airports is a nightmare. Trying to get the products to other marketplaces is very difficult. Those 236 hectares in Frankston City represent 17 per cent—almost one-fifth—of all the vacant industrial land in the greater Melbourne area, and those 236 hectares will benefit from the Scoresby transport corridor. Why wouldn't I be excited about this project? Why wouldn't I recognise the economic and social benefits and the benefits to living standards that the project represents to the community that I represent?

We are not reckless about this. I know that there are some people who do not support the project—people like Paul Mees, who is a private citizen trying to stop this project through appeals to the Federal Court. As frustrating as that is, it is microscopically frustrating compared to the inactivity of the Victorian state Labor government. It might be worth recalling that the Bracks government campaigned and were elected on the basis of opposing this project—a project that represents a life vein into the city that I am a part of and into those 236 hectares of vacant land. It was opposed by the Bracks government when they were elected. Finally, through arm-twisting, good argument, persuasion and strong advocacy, we convinced the state government of the importance of this project, and they are now on board. But ever since they said they were on board they have behaved like reluctant converts, and that continues to this day.

We still do not know when the project is going to commence. We still do not know when the section that is of most interest to me—the link between the Frankston freeway and the Monash freeway—will start, what it will look like, when it will be completed and what the key attributes of it are. We do not know that. We are putting $950 million—nearly $1 billion—of public money into this project and we do not know when it is going to start. We ask a lot of our governments but I do not think that that is too much to ask of our state government: when will it start; when will we get on with the project?

The Commonwealth is doing its bit in recognition of the fact that last year we secured Ramsar listing, an international recognition, of the Seaford-Edithvale wetlands. Those wetlands have some tourists: birds that travel from Siberia and right around the world to hook past the electorate that I represent. We have responsibilities there and, quite appropriately, we declared the wetlands a Ramsar site. In addition to that, under treaty obligations those listed and migratory bird species we have responsibilities to care for their habitat. Because of that, quite rightly, the southern section of the Scoresby corridor has been identified and declared a controlled action so that its construction and design do not impact negatively on the Ramsar site and the habitat and wellbeing of those listed and migratory species.

To give you an idea about how the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act puts disciplines on the Commonwealth, let me illustrate what is happening. At this stage, we have some idea that the project is going on, but we have not even got the required minimum level of information from the Victorian state government to determine what level of assessment is required. Once we get that information, the Commonwealth has 20 days to make a decision. We have waited 20 months for some kind of information at all from the state government about how it intends to carry this project through. When we get an idea and some preliminary information is submitted from the state government, the Commonwealth has 20 days to decide what level of assessment is required. That will be followed by a public notification period of at least 10 days. The community is invited to put its view, and the proponents—in this case, the state government—can respond to those points. Once that response has been received, the Commonwealth has a further 20 days to prepare an assessment report.

I am talking about disciplines that the broader community expect of their governments, particularly when there is $1 billion being invested, and we still cannot get any information from the Bracks Labor government about what the heck is going on with this project. They say they are committed, but they are behaving as reluctant converts. They should just get on with it and help the community prepare for it. In the void—this period of not knowing when this project is going to move forward—we have ideas from the Bracks Labor government sneaking out the back door about building a high-security prison in Carrum Downs. What is the justification? There is vacant industrial land. We know that: that is why we are campaigning for the Scoresby transport corridor. But, if the community is going to secure maximum benefits from the Scoresby transport corridor, it needs to know when and how this project will proceed. I am talking about maximum benefits for the community from this project, not a maximum security prison. That is the choice at the moment, and the state Labor member for Frankston East seems to think it is not such a bad idea. He is quoted in the 20 May edition of the Frankston/Hastings Leader as saying:

“If there's a prison to be located in the South Eastern region, it will be located in an area that is suitable for a prison ...

“Anyway, if a prisoner escapes from the prison, they aren't going to hang around the local area—they'd get as far away as possible.”

That is the logic we are up against. He goes on to say that the area on the corner of Thompson and Frankston-Dandenong roads opposite Bunurong Park would be suitable for a prison as the land is mostly farming land. It might be suitable from that point of view but I do not know under what other criteria it would be suitable, and I certainly do not believe a maximum security prison is the best way of securing benefits for our community from the Scoresby transport corridor. But how can we argue the case about high-quality investment producing high-earning secure jobs as a result of these projects when we do not even know when the transport corridor project is going to commence?

In the meantime, in the absence of a clear strategic plan to secure these benefits, we get these ideas about a maximum security prison advocated and apparently supported, according to the media, by the state member for Frankston East, Matt Viney. What great logic: don't be worried, folks, about a maximum security prison in your neighbourhood—if someone gets out, they are not going to hang around. That is what we are up against. How is an escapee going to get away from the place though? I hope I am not in the road of the freedom run and this person's exit from the prison when they decide to assault me and my family for my motor vehicle to get away from the place. This is the sort of nonsense that we have to contend with at a state level.

Roads have always been a problem down our way. We have the Frankston-Cranbourne road duplication. I highlighted, as a result of freedom of information inquiries a little over a year ago, that this project was announced and set to proceed last year: in June 2001 work on this project was supposed to have commenced. Why then? Because that was announced some time earlier by the former roads minister and the state member for Cranbourne, Gary Rowe, who did a great job getting that project up. It was to cost $7.6 million at the time. What happened? The government changed, and now our local community gets this story: `Gee, VicRoads are horribly mean to our community: they won't support any road projects.' That is absolute bunkum.

The FOI documents that I secured and released to the media showed that VicRoads were ready to go and were strong advocates of the project but the expenditure review committee, in a political decision by the Bracks government, put it on the back burner. The state transport minister, Peter Batchelor, is on that committee, and you have the state Labor representatives running around saying, `Gee, VicRoads are doing us over.' That is wrong: VicRoads were there, ready to proceed. Work should have commenced a year ago, and we would be nearing completion of the project if it were not for this political decision to bury it. In the meantime, the federal government spends $142,000 of federal black spot funding trying to carry out safety works so that the harm that this overstretched road is imposing on our local community and on motorists can be abated. Thankfully, the black spot project is continuing, and guess what? In recent weeks there has been an announcement by the Bracks Labor government that they are going to think about starting the project in a couple of years. What is this? This is just an example of our community being treated as political mushrooms over these sorts of road projects when they are of crucial significance to the community I represent.

In the Fairfax community newspaper Flyer this week, there is an interesting and insightful report attributing comments to Pat O'Connell from the Frankston and Mornington Local Learning and Employment Network. It goes on to say that Mornington Peninsula secondary schools are retaining 69 per cent of students through to year 12 and that this is a worrying concern. I agree: it is a worrying concern. This is why I am so supportive of the funding in the budget for training initiatives. I have spoken in this place before about many gifted and able people having great futures ahead of them although they might not necessarily excel academically. They will need skills and abilities properly nurtured to make them very successful citizens and big contributors to our country. So vital training initiatives for all Australians are supported by this budget: $8 billion of Commonwealth funding over the next four years will put in place these training opportunities. This is an increase of 5.5 per cent over previous years, and in the coming year we are spending $1.9 billion, including $1.1 billion going to states and territories.

Two key initiatives that are in this budget are the innovation in the New Apprenticeships measure that means employers taking on a new apprentice in IT or other emerging high-skilled occupations will be eligible for an additional $1,100 incentive payment. That is crucially important. It is an incentive to employers to take on young people with talents in these high-skilled areas, young people who might not be academically the most gifted but are talented people in these areas. It is an incentive for employers to take on these young people, and even more mature people looking for a change in careers, as a new apprentice. That is crucially important in my area. In particular, though, employers who take on a new apprentice while the young employee is still at school will be eligible for an incentive payment of $750. What is important about that is this: we have concerning levels of early school leaving happening in my area and, while we have initiatives such as the IT Skills Centre at Mornington Secondary College providing alternative career pathways, we now have in place a further incentive that says to employers, `When you are speaking to a young person about a new apprenticeship opportunity, canvass the prospect of them staying at school and doing a new apprenticeship and VET and school activities alongside elements of the curriculum,' a positive measure that I absolutely support.

Finally, I would also like to highlight the $54 million over four years for older people who are job seekers who have some difficulty with information technology skills. These are talented people able to commit to and engage in the workplace, and what is the barrier: not comfortable with IT. It does not matter whether you are working at Bunnings handling orders for timber, working on a factory floor or selling real estate, some competency with IT is an advantage. This is a great measure that I hope to speak more about shortly. (Time expired)