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Thursday, 24 May 2012
Page: 5608

Mr FITZGIBBON (HunterChief Government Whip) (11:48): I like the member for Moncrieff, and I have a healthy respect for his ability and capacity. I really cannot understand why he is not serving on the front bench, representing his party, but I am sure his time will come. But when we come to speak on the budget we come largely to speak about our local communities, and I have never heard such rubbish from him. I cannot believe the dissertation I have just heard from the member for Moncrieff. He represents a thriving tourism area. Where would it be now if Australia were in recession? How would the member for Moncrieff's electorate now be faring if, like Europe in particular, we were now in recession as a country?

As we speak today, in every corner of Europe they are wondering what they will do next about their economic situation. The eurozone is falling apart and they are wondering how they get growth back into their local economies, and they wonder how they are going to deal with the debt crisis of southern Europe. Meanwhile, back in Australia, of course, we still enjoy healthy growth. We managed to avoid recession, one of the only Western democracies to do so, and of course that has left us with a little bit of debt. The member for Moncrieff's alternative was not to spend that money and allow Australia to sink into a deep recession. All those things he was just talking about, which are no doubt worthy projects in his electorate, would not be funded today, because government revenues would have fallen considerably as the economy went into negative, and government outlays would have risen considerably as people joined the unemployment queues. Unemployment now in the Hunter region is at 3.9 per cent. In my electorate it is 3½ per cent. That would not be the case—

Mr Ciobo: No, it isn't.

Mr FITZGIBBON: I will take the interjection. I am not sure what it was, but I suspect I know. I do not take all the credit for that, nor does the current Labor government. The Hunter region is transforming itself off the back of reforms over a period of more than 20 years, started by the Hawke and Keating governments, continued by the Howard government and now kicked along again by the current Labor government.

But let us not have this rubbish that this debt, which as a percentage of GDP is very small in Australia, is somehow a problem for us and that, if we had not had it, we would be funding things in the member for Moncrieff's electorate. That is not true. If we had gone down the path he has suggested, his electorate would be in much worse shape today than it is thanks to the intervention of this government—intervention recommended by no less a person than the then Treasury secretary, Ken Henry, who was very persuasive recently on 7.30. I can advise the member for Moncrieff that that full interview can be seen, by the way, on the ABC website, and he should read it. I would ask those who might be listening to this debate this morning to ask themselves who has it right—Ken Henry or the member for Moncrieff? I know where my money is, and I suspect most of them will come to the conclusion that Ken Henry probably has a better idea about these things than the member for Moncrieff, as talented as the member for Moncrieff might be. I suspect they would also see Ken Henry as being just a little more independent in his pronouncements than the member for Moncrieff is, because as you would expect the member for Moncrieff is in here playing the political game. I am not saying I have never done that. I am sure I did in my younger days, but I have come to mature and I have come to understand that you do better in this place if you speak frankly about the challenges facing us and the opportunities before us, and that is what I will do this morning in the time afforded me.

On that theme, I want to say this: when I was elected to the Cessnock City Council in 1987, the Cessnock LGA was in pretty bad shape. Historically the area affectionately known as the Coalfields was established on the back of pit tops. Cessnock, Paxton, Ellalong and Millfield—I could go on and on—were there because there were mines there. The mines were sunk first and the communities were established around them. Of course, eventually the mines moved on and the people did not. That left the Coalfields in pretty bad shape. When I was elected, unemployment in Cessnock, for example, was more than 13 per cent. Youth unemployment was probably around 30 per cent. Things were pretty rough. Our roads were goat tracks. Roads like Allandale Road, Maitland Road, Aberdare Road, Lang Street in Kurri, Mitchell Avenue in Kurri and Victoria Street in Kurri were just goat tracks. We still have some problems with roads; all of us continue to work on those. We have more than our fair share, but basically our roads have come a long way. We did not have recreational facilities to speak of. We did not have any decent parks. We do now. We did not have any traffic lights. When I was elected to the Cessnock council in 1987, there was not a set of traffic lights in the whole city—a city covering Cessnock, Kurri and many communities around them. We have many now. Many of these things come naturally as the city grows, but the Cessnock LGA is a very different place today from what it was then.

If we wanted entertainment in the Cessnock LGA in those days, we went to the club or the pub. There was nothing wrong with that; they are good pubs and clubs and they are getting even better. But, if we wanted to do something beyond that, we drove to Newcastle or, more likely, we drove to Sydney. Today Sydney comes to us. The vineyard concerts are becoming very famous and well attended.

The whole Cessnock economy has been transformed, driven by the services and retail sectors. Coalmining is very important. We are very fortunate, because we are part of the boom, but the boom is not in our backyard. A large proportion of our workforce still works in mining by travelling down to areas like the member for Charlton's area and more particularly to the Upper Hunter. But things have improved dramatically. I said that I think the unemployment then in Cessnock was 13 per cent. Today it is a six per cent unemployment rate in Cessnock, and 3.5 per cent is the unemployment rate in the Hunter electorate.

We have the Hunter Expressway now coming through our area—a federal government investment of $1.45 billion, which will transform traffic flows through the region and provide towns like Cessnock and Maitland and a number of communities in between—Lochinvar, Greta, Branxton, Mount Vincent, Mulbring et cetera—with much-needed bypasses of their local communities and much needed relief from heavy vehicle traffic in particular. The Hunter Expressway is going to significantly impact positively on the Hunter's economy.

I say all these things not to take credit for them, although I like to think that over 16 years in this place and then eight years before that on Cessnock council I played my role. I will say again that for 11½ years of that period the conservatives were in power here in Canberra, and they take some credit for some of the transformations we have seen in the Hunter's economy and social fabric over those years. It has been a team effort. When John Howard was the Prime Minister, I like to think that I worked pretty well with his government to do what was right for my electorate, including the Cessnock LGA, which I love very, very much. I have lived there all of my life and I suspect I will live there for the balance of my life.

One of the reasons I make this point is that yesterday Norsk Hydro announced that it has finally taken the decision to close down its aluminium-manufacturing plant in Kurri Kurri, with the loss of around 400 jobs. Already a number of months ago they closed down one potline, which caused them to shed about 150 jobs. This is very, very unfortunate, disappointing and distressing for those directly affected—either those who have been working at Hydro, some of them for many years, or those working in the industries would support Hydro, whether they be supplying food or doing other manufacturing and works associated with the plant.

What concerns me is the way people talk down the town in the wake of these things. Hydro have been making it clear for a while that aluminium prices and the Australian dollar were killing them. They have had the additional frustration of their inability to secure an appropriate and acceptable long-term power supply contract with the New South Wales government. We knew this was coming, as sad as we find it. But it is not the end of Kurri Kurri, it is not the end of the Cessnock LGA and it is certainly not the end of the Hunter electorate. We are a booming community. We are very fortunate. We have much at our disposal. With unemployment at 3.5 per cent in the Hunter electorate and six per cent in the Cessnock LGA or thereabouts, most of those workers, in my view, will have very good employment prospects. They are semiskilled and skilled, and well placed to pick up the enormous amount of job opportunities in the Hunter region, including very close to home. The biggest challenge for me when I became the member for Hunter was finding jobs to put people in. Today my biggest challenge is finding the people to fill the jobs. I regularly talk with employers who are simply crying out for employees.

A division having been called in the House of Representatives—

Sitting suspended from 11:59 to 12:15

Mr FITZGIBBON: If I were one to write and read my speeches, I might know where I was before I was interrupted by the division—a first for me—but I know what theme I was on, and it is this. The Cessnock LGA is in great shape. It is more beautiful than it once was and more vibrant than it once was. The unemployment rate has never been so low. We have never had such economic diversity and I am sure that all those who are looking for a job post-Hydro will find themselves a job in a labour market—and I remember where I was up to in my speech now—where employers are screaming for employees with the sorts of skills held by those who, very unfortunately, will be made redundant as a result of Hydro's closure. So my main message to the many out there talking the area down is: please stop it. It does not help. We are in very good shape and our future is a very bright one indeed. Please stop this rubbish about blaming the carbon price for the closure and, in doing so, making political capital out of what is a pretty distressing time for those who were directly affected.

In the minutes left to me, I want to mention a couple of people who have, sadly, passed on in recent times. I spoke about Mrs Lola Neilly in the adjournment debate on Monday, and I want to quickly mention two other people. One is Bill Parker, who was a Kurri resident, served for many, many years on Cessnock City Council, including a term as deputy mayor, and served with me for the eight years I was on Cessnock council. He was a wonderful individual of unchallenged integrity and a talented councillor who always put his city first. He will be sadly missed.

The second person I want to mention is Mr Kevin Levido. Kevin Levido was a very well known Cessnock resident from a very well-known family. He for many years managed the local Bandag tyre-retreading business for the O'Neill family. He was very active, like Bill Parker, in the Labor Party. He was also involved in a range of other organisations, including the local Masonic lodge. He was a very disciplined character and always very fit, even in his later years, but, again, like Bill Parker, he was a man of very great honesty and integrity. He was known to be pretty tough too, including on his employees and, indeed, those close to him. But that was his way—we are all different. He remained a person who was very highly respected in the local community. To both of those families once again go my sympathies and condolences.

Although we lost Bill probably some months ago now, this has been my first opportunity to acknowledge his passing and to thank him again for his contribution and to thank his family for allowing him to spend so much of his time doing what he loved, trying to improve his local community. It is the very community that I have just been talking about, of course—Kurri Kurri. If Bill were here, I have no doubt that he would agree with me that we have gone ahead in leaps and bounds since the days when we enjoyed one another's company on Cessnock council. He would not be happy to hear people talking down the local area. He, like me, would say, 'It's a tragedy we've lost Hydro, but, gee, we've got so much else going for us.'