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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 25

Senator O'BRIEN (2:08 PM) —My question is to Senator Ian Campbell, the Minister representing the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Can the minister confirm that the $408 million Regional Partnerships program is a discretionary program, with funding grants under this program made completely at a minister's discretion and that currently that minister is the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Anderson? Does the discretionary nature of this decision making mean proposals which may meet the assessment criteria are not guaranteed funding? Does it also mean that proposals that fail to meet the assessment criteria may be funded? Of the more than $149 million which has been pledged or granted under the Regional Partnerships program, can the minister confirm whether grants or pledges have been made for projects which failed to meet the program's assessment criteria?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I appreciate the question from the Australian Labor Party, on issues to do with supporting the regions. The Australian Labor Party has a reputation not only out in the country, out in the bush, out in the regions, but also in the capital cities of being very focused on inner suburban issues. I think it is very important for the people of Australia—and Senator O'Brien has assisted the government in this regard—to focus on just how the government are committed to people who live in the regions, who live outside metropolitan areas. We as a government have deliberately set out to deliver—and have achieved some success in delivering—assistance for people living outside the metropolitan areas through a whole series of programs, not only supporting a strong economy but also looking at regions that need specific assistance. For example—and Senator Kerry O'Brien may not be aware of this—we set up a set of area coordinating councils across the country, which are groups from the community who assist the minister in bringing forward projects and assessing those projects.

There has been criticism levelled at this. Some of the figures that would make coalition members and senators proud show that under the Regional Partnerships program there have been many hundreds of projects put forward, most of them from coalition seats. That is because, firstly, the coalition holds more seats out in the regions. Labor has basically departed that territory. When these projects are assessed—as Senator O'Brien knows—there is a proper assessment process but there is discretion. Of the projects put forward, the approval percentages for projects from ALP electorates and those from coalition electorates are virtually identical. The assessment process is a rigorous one. That is not to say that programs and projects that come forward and are given an assessment cannot be reassessed if further information comes forward, and I think that is quite normal. I also make the point that there is an important accountability mechanism in having the minister ultimately make the determinations. Peter Austin wrote in the Land newspaper I think just last week:

ABC Television's 7.30 Report sought to make much of the hardly startling revelation that it was the minister, principally John Anderson, not the bureaucrats, who had the final say on where and who got what. All I can say is, `Thank God for that.' At least this ensures that when a coalition government is in power rural and regional areas will get a fair slice of the pie.

The other thing that is interesting to point out is that, while Senator O'Brien is going around criticising the coalition for looking after regional areas, he himself is pretty good at using his discretion to give grants. During the election campaign, Senator O'Brien turned up on 21 September and announced a $1 million grant for a national centre for democracy at the Eureka Centre in Ballarat. Only a few days later he turned up a little bit further north, announcing $1.5 million for a turtle interpretation centre, not to mention $3 million for a sporting complex in Thuringowa and $6 million to upgrade the Rockhampton showground. Senator O'Brien shows that he can use his discretion. He shows that the Labor Party are quite adept at handing out funds for projects in communities without any assessment at all. (Time expired)

Senator O'BRIEN —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Firstly, the minister can check the records and will find that he will need to correct that statement because it is wrong. Secondly, the minister has failed to answer my question and I ask him to address it in answer to this supplementary question. Can he confirm whether grants or pledges have been made for projects which failed to meet that program's assessment criteria? In relation to the application of the assessment criteria for the Regional Partnerships program, I refer the minister to Deputy Prime Minister Anderson's claim that all regional partnerships funding proposals are subject to `rigorous and independent process'. Can the minister confirm that, in addition to exercising discretion on the expenditure of all Regional Partnerships program grants, the Deputy Prime Minister also acts as the final decision maker on any review of his own decisions? How can these arrangements possibly constitute a rigorous and independent decision-making process?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —Senator O'Brien clearly does not understand that you can have a rigorous independent assessment process, you can have people in regional Australia putting forward projects and you can, after independent and rigorous assessment, go back and say, `Look, we think you have got some deficiencies in these projects.' This happens all the time. The trouble with Labor here in Canberra—and Labor in many other places—is that they are not prepared to help the regions. We do not only accept projects from the regions and fund them but, if assessments are made that the projects that come forward need some assistance, we give it. If we need to increase and improve the governance of the local bodies, we do that. We work with the regions. We do not just say, `Forget it, you're not good enough, your project's no good, go away and try somewhere else,' we actually work with the regions. We work with people in local areas, we work through committees, we work through regional structures, we empower the regions, while Labor says, `Go and be blowed, we don't even want to hear from you.' You name one regional project that you would defund.