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Thursday, 17 February 2000
Page: 11997

Senator WATSON (2:07 PM) —My question is directed to Senator Ian Macdonald, the Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government. Would the minister outline the strategy and the benefits of the Regional Australia Summit and the coming Northern Australia Forum? Is the minister aware of any other proposals to focus on regional and rural Australia?

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Minister for Regional Services, Territories and Local Government) —I thank Senator Watson for that question—a senator from regional Australia and one who understands the bush. The coalition has certainly embarked upon a program of consulting with the bush, of understanding the problems in country Australia and of really working with country Australians to assist country Australia. Our Regional Australia Summit did that and, of course, the Northern Australia Forum that we are running later this year in October as well as the regional forum we will be running in New South Wales shortly are all part of our goal to consult with the bush and to do what our regional members and senators already do.

Senator Watson also asked me if I am aware of any other consultation process taking place. I understand that tomorrow the Labor Party and the Labor leaders are meeting in Burnie in northern Tasmania to have a regional summit to get some ideas for policy for regional Australia. We all know from their record that the ALP will never deliver anything but rhetoric to the bush. The Labor Party's bush love-in to be held in Burnie tomorrow is likely to produce a lot of noise but no substance. Labor has form in the country, and it is all bad. You have only to look at Labor's program in government. When Labor was in office, interest rates were up to 20 to 25 per cent for rural businesses. Youth unemployment in Labor's time exceeded 50 per cent in places like Richmond and Tweed. The number of post office outlets fell by some 277 in the last six years of Labor in office. By 1995, there were some 600 rural towns with populations between 200 and 5,000 which did not have financial institutions within 40 kilometres. There was high inflation. Labor also committed the bush to the closure of the analog mobile phone system without having anything in place to replace it and to give services to people in the bush.

You will remember Labor's star that was going to fix things in the bush, Cheryl Kernot; you will remember what she thought about the bush when she told Senator Woodley not to go near the bush because there were no votes out there. That is Labor's policy: it is directed only towards votes and nothing else. It goes on. The Labor policy for regional Australia promised $150 million over four years for regional development organisations. What happened? It spent $60 million, and most of it was in the cities. You will remember the centrepiece of Labor's regional development program, Labor's program for the bush, which was called Better Cities. That is what Labor did for regional Australia.

We have put over $400 million into the bush with the Networking the Nation program, opposed by Labor; we have reduced fuel prices for the bush, opposed by Labor; we have reduced the cost of transport to the bush, opposed by Labor. So their form is there. What Labor are going to do in Burnie tomorrow is to have a Burnie barn dance. It will all be warm and fuzzy but, when you wake up the next morning, there will be no substance to it. It is an absolute farce. It is typical of Labor: lot of talk, lot of rhetoric but no substance. Their record in government proves that. Now perhaps I have been a little harsh on Labor's rural summit tomorrow. I understand there is one industry that is going to do well out of this summit, and that is the R.M. Williams shop in Civic in Canberra. I understand that today they are doing a roaring business.