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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 10498

Mr GRAY (Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development and Northern Australia) (4:26 PM) —I rise to speak on this MPI, which is on a good subject. Normally when MPIs come before us they are fairly awfully worded and read more like motions from a Young Liberal Party conference. But this is a good MPI: ‘The impact of government policies on the physical, social and economic health of rural and regional Australians’. It is an absolute pity for regional Australia and the National Party that the modern National Party is simply not up to a half decent debate on this subject. There are clearly significant issues in rural and regional Australia that need attention. But they did not get it for 12 years, they will not get it from the current National Party and they will not get it from a leadership so mired in its own past. That has been the weakness of its own public administration and its own inability to serve the needs of its own voters. Most importantly, it is not even capable of seeing the national interest, let alone serving it.

As the global financial crisis tightens its grip, we must be prepared to stand by our regional communities. That is why I had some optimism that in this debate there would be substance on the table and matters debated that went to real issues concerning regional Australia, farming communities and the economic health of our regions. But, no, what we get is another limp-wristed defence of poor, failed regional partnerships and pathetic policies that were designed to do nothing more than pork-barrel their own electorates. There is a common cause: that our government, this parliament, our nation, marshal its financial resources, its intellectual capacity and deals with the current global financial crisis. It is why the government has announced its $10.4 billion fiscal stimulus package. It is why we have taken swift action to deal with bank deposit guarantees. It is why we have been accepting the advice of our prudential regulators, proceeding with skill and with speed. That is in clear contrast to the approach of those members opposite when they were in charge of the prudential regulators. When the HIH collapse came along, not only did they ignore the signals and ignore the advice of the regulators, they did simply nothing, causing massive dislocation in regional Australia as sporting events, community activities and the very fabric of regional society fell apart because of the inability simply to get insurance. It was not something that particularly bothered members opposite. Their concern was the obtaining of donations from HIH, and the prudential regulation which was cared for by those members opposite was merely the prudential interests of the Liberal Party.

I learned something yesterday. Frequently you do learn something in this place. You learn by listening to what is being said. It had not occurred to me that in one of the more tragic and consequential events of the last few days—the difficulties of ABC Learning—the relationship between ABC Learning, Eddy Groves and the National Party was as close as it has turned out to be. It had not occurred to me, although it should have. Why was I surprised to discover that, at the same time the former government put its own donors on the Reserve Bank board shortly after the 2004 election, Larry Anthony had been appointed to a position with ABC Learning and shortly after that to the board of ABC Learning? What we learned yesterday in this place was the size of the donation made by ABC Learning to the National Party. In some of the documents, which I will table here today, that donation is $50,000. According to Eddy Groves, it is a donation from Edmund Stuart Groves, but according to the National Party it is simply a donation from ABC Learning Centres. I make this point: the National Party—a once great political party, a party that gave us people like Ian Sinclair, a party that gave us people like Doug Anthony, a party that used to know and understand the needs and the interests of rural and regional Australia—no longer simply does not represent the interests of rural Australia but does not know what those interests are. It only knows its own interests, and it only knows its own financial interests at that.

I said at the start of speaking in this debate that I was optimistic that we would have a debate that addressed some of the crushing difficulties and issues facing rural and regional Australia. We saw yesterday the launch of Diabetes Australia’s online mapping facility showing the incidence of diabetes across regional Australia. There are health issues to do with stress, to do with youth suicide, to do with diabetes, to do with health care and to do with the delivery of health care in rural and regional communities. Do they get mentioned or acknowledged in this place? No, they do not. What the members opposite go back to, time and time again, is merely Regional Partnerships. In 1996, there were 18 members of the National Party in this place. By 1998, there were 16 members of the National Party in this place. By 2001, there were 13 members of the National Party in this place. By 2004, there were 12. By 2007, there were 10 members. Currently, we have nine. What does that tell you? It tells you that the people of rural and regional Australia are on to something, and what they are on to is the fact that the National Party today is not up to the task of representing rural and regional Australia.

I had a fascinating insight in the past month. It was to watch the election in Western Australia, the election which saw the defeat of the Carpenter government. What we saw in that election was a vigorous campaign by the Western Australian National Party—a campaign around regional Western Australia, a campaign under the tag of ‘Royalties for Regions’. It matters not whether you support the National Party’s campaign in Western Australia or even whether you understand it. What is insightful is that following the election it became clear that the National Party would hold the swing votes in that parliament—the National Party could decide who would become a government, whether it would be Colin Barnett and the Liberal Party or Alan Carpenter and the Labor Party. So the Leader of the Western Australian  National Party did the right thing. He said: ‘I will represent the interests of those people who voted for our members of parliament. I will negotiate with both major parties and get the best deal for regional Western Australia.’ It was not an unreasonable proposition, not an unreasonable thought. It was a completely honourable motivation. But what happened? He got a phone call from the Leader of the National Party in this place, Warren Truss, to say, ‘You will not do a deal with the Labor Party.’ What he said was, ‘You will form a coalition with the Liberal Party.’

The Liberals knew that this heavy-handed approach would come. The Liberals in Western Australian knew that, when it came down to it, the National Party would not stand up for their constituency, they would not stand up for the people who voted for them and they would not stand up for the farmers and communities that need the support; the National Party would merely support the Liberal Party. That is why in this place we see a once great political party reduced to not only a rump but a pathetic rump that knows not where it is going and only looks in the rear-view mirror to see the once great members, frankly, laughing at the underperformance of the current members of the National Party.

When I travel around regional Australia, I am stunned at the inability of the National Party to understand the needs of regional Australia. I am forever thankful that in just 10 months what the new Australian government has done is confirm that a new Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program will be created to help address the infrastructure needs of local communities. It will not be a pork barrel. We started rolling out the biggest ever federal investment in the nation’s rail and road networks—$26 billion over the next six years. We have already delivered $1.75 billion over five years to extend Roads to Recovery and an extra $250 million for local roads. We have provided $1.9 billion this year to help councils and shires deliver important local services. We have announced the first-ever assembly of all of our mayors and executive officers from all around Australia to come to Canberra next week to speak with the Prime Minister and cabinet ministers and to engage in a dialogue that will be productive and in the interests of regional Australia. (Time expired)