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Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Page: 11607

Mr CHESTER (10:43 AM) —It is a pleasure to follow the member for Ballarat as the member represents a very beautiful regional centre. I have had the great pleasure to visit Ballarat on many occasions and have actually participated with the Tan Clan. This was set up by running legend Richard Tan. For those who have not heard of the man—he is a 70-year-old fellow who runs a running group that 70 to 100 people turn up to three times a week. They run around Lake Wendouree and other parts of Ballarat. It is a magnificent part of Ballarat that we get to visit at six o’clock in the morning—all of which has nothing to do with the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 and related bills.

I must say at the outset that it is a pity that we cannot seal our roads with paper or build bridges with the tower of reports that have been undertaken by the current government. I have only been in this place for a short time and I have heard a lot about nation building. There has been a lot of talk and precious little action at this stage. Now we are finally seeing what the government has to offer and I must say it is somewhat disappointing. There has been a lot of hype and rhetoric, but we are finding out that the Australian people are going to be short-changed because the money is simply not there.

The government announced in the 2008 budget that there would be $41 billion in the funds by July 2009 but there is only $26.3 billion to be allocated at the fund’s inception on 1 January, 2009. If anyone believes there will be another $15 billion in the funds by 1 July, come and see me about a bridge I am happy to sell them in Sydney. I should not joke about selling assets in Sydney; perhaps the New South Wales government will take me seriously!

I would like to take up some of the points made by Infrastructure Partnerships Australia in its submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Economics. IPA commented regarding future budget allocations:

The dwindling revenues to the Federal Budget are of concern, given the stipulation that future allocations (beyond the initial contribution) will be made “as Budget circumstances permit”.

The IPA shares my concern that there may not be a lot more money on the way for any of these funds. The IPA also commented:

We hope that these funds prove to be long-term investment vehicles, not ones which will fall away after the initial endowment from the 2007/2008 Budget surplus.

These are all good points. The funding must continue beyond the electoral cycle and, if we are fair dinkum about nation building, this must be above party politics.

There have been a lot of accusations from those opposite during the debate on this bill. I have heard accusations of rorts of previous programs. The Regional Partnerships initiative has been bandied around a great deal. Obviously the speechwriters have dished up the usual key lines and rhetoric, and parrots in the government have been reciting them word for word. But they should be careful about repeating some of these accusations, like those which have been put forward in this place by the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government. The minister does tend to get a little bit carried away on occasion. A couple of weeks ago he spoke on Regional Partnerships and, referring to National Party ministers, he said:

They were consistent in their inaction, in their drift, in their nepotism and in the corrupt way they handled the Regional Partnerships program.

That is what he said. The minister has accused former National Party ministers of being corrupt. I believe that is an outrageous slur that does not reflect the quality of debate in this House. I really think it is a bridge too far, but it is perhaps the only bridge the minister has built in the past 12 months.

At least we did have a regional development program. At least the former government actually invested in projects on the ground in regional areas and not in a tower of reports and reviews. All we have heard from this government in the past 12 months is talk about what it is going to do one day with the money left to it by the former coalition government. The minister cannot have it both ways. He has to make up his mind on this issue. On the one hand, he constantly attacks the Nationals as being a spent force and for delivering nothing for regional areas. That is the substance of his almost daily attacks in this place. But, on the other hand, he accuses the Nationals of pork barrelling and delivering projects to country areas that should never have been approved. He cannot have it both ways. We either delivered or we did not. That is duplicity and hypocrisy on a grand scale, but I have become used to it in my short time in this place. There is a lot of spin and not a hell of a lot of substance in some of the material put before us.

Only Labor could come up with the somewhat ambitiously named Nation-building Funds Bill, which is before the House. There is no problem with hiding your light behind a bushel here. They are very good at coming up with these grand names. Even the Minister for Finance and Deregulation described it in his second reading speech as:

… an infrastructure program of historical proportions.

Nation-building—doesn’t it sound grand? You would think that a minister would actually build something before he started bragging and crowing about achievements of historic proportions.

That has not stopped the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government either. In one of my first weeks in this place, the minister attempted to take me to task for writing to him to seek an update on a $140 million project to duplicate the Princes Highway east of Traralgon. The minister sought on that occasion to ridicule me for writing on behalf of the people of Gippsland to seek details on the project. The problem was that it was the government’s own promise. The Rudd government had promised the $140 million, and it was notably absent in the budget papers. As it turned out, there was $500,000 there for planning works. So the people of Gippsland are still waiting for another $139,500,000. I look forward to the day when the minister stops playing games with that funding and delivers on that promise.

Those opposite seem to take offence whenever the opposition asks questions about policy decisions. I believe it is only reasonable for the opposition to ask such questions. While the changing economic circumstances around the world warrant a quick response, it is not in the interests of the nation for the opposition to be mute on this occasion. It is reasonable to offer bipartisan support while at the same time reserving the right to ask serious questions about the various packages developed by the government. The three infrastructure funds dealt with under the bill deserve to be closely scrutinised. These are uncertain economic times and we have entered uncharted waters. It is only reasonable for the opposition to keep the government up to the mark, particularly when half the forecast budget surplus is about to be spent under the economic stimulus package and we find the forecast for the budget surplus has been slashed to about $5 billion. That is a remarkable turnaround in the past 12 months.

Plenty of members have already mentioned this, but it is worth repeating: the previous government worked very hard to retire the $96 billion of debt and create the economic conditions which allowed our nation to prosper. The funds being allocated to these three funds have come about through good economic management by the previous government. I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and these infrastructure funds have been achieved through the work of the previous government. We are yet to see whether the current government can deliver the money it has promised from 1 July next year.

I have already voiced the IPA’s concerns and I echo them again today. The previous government did invest in infrastructure and it did put money away for the rainy days we are now encountering, with multiple budget surpluses delivered by the member for Higgins when Treasurer. Budget surpluses and low unemployment became so normal that I fear some of us took them for granted. All of that is about to change. We are seeing forecast growth in unemployment, and I fear that budget surpluses have been consigned to history. The Minister for Finance and Deregulation might not want to say it, but the way things are travelling the budget may already be in deficit.

I note the bills establish three separate financial assets funds: the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund. No-one in this parliament would dispute the need to invest in improved infrastructure in all three areas. It is an ongoing and constant challenge for governments to address. It is inevitable that the infrastructure needs of our respective communities will never be fully met. We will always be looking for ways to improve or upgrade the facilities in our communities. But it is ridiculous for the current government to constantly claim that the previous coalition government did nothing for 12 years. I will not bore the House by running through a long list of projects that were achieved in Gippsland by the previous member, Peter McGauran, but I will make the point that these included many important infrastructure projects—such as the redevelopment of the East Sale RAAF base, the Monash rural medical school and about $30 million in Roads to Recovery projects, to name a few.

There is always going to be more to be done, which brings me to the current government’s plans. I have already mentioned the Princes Highway upgrade. That is a project that has bipartisan support, and I urge the government to get on with the job. When governments invest in projects such as road duplication, it improves road safety. I have been a very strong campaigner on behalf of my constituents to say that, if you fix country roads, you will save country lives. This is not just about duplicating the highway between Traralgon and Sale. I call on the government to work with the state government to look at improving the Princes Highway right throughout the Gippsland electorate. The previous government did undertake road improvements through the Auslink and Roads to Recovery programs and the Victorian government has invested through VicRoads in a number of road-shouldering projects east of Orbost to the New South Wales border. But there is always more work to be done. As previous studies have found, if you invest in improving the road safety environment you will achieve a better outcome than if you use enforcement measures and improved driver behaviour alone. There is huge potential to reduce the road toll in regional areas by investing in a safer road environment.

Infrastructure spending in regional areas links into something that I believe is a central theme for the future of my community—that is, providing the tools to allow businesses to prosper and provide opportunities for young people. We need to be innovative and we need to be prepared to look outside the cities with an active policy of decentralisation. Melbourne is bursting at the seams. It does not seem to have enough water, traffic congestion is chaotic and the public transport system is disastrous. I believe the Bracks and Brumby governments have a lot to answer for. But we should not be rewarding that ineptitude with a bailout from the federal government focused only on metropolitan Melbourne’s needs. Rather than support piping water to Melbourne with infrastructure projects like the reviled north-south pipeline, which is being pushed by Labor at both the state and federal levels and which is going to suck the life out of the Goulburn Valley region, we should support investment in infrastructure to help regional areas to prosper in the future. There are compelling social, economic and environmental arguments to support my view that ending the urban sprawl and supporting regional development are positive policy positions for the future.

At a social level one of the greatest challenges we in Gippsland face is to stop exporting all of our young people. We need to invest in infrastructure in health, education and skills training to provide career opportunities so young people can either remain in our region in the first place or return after they have had their chance to tour the world and gain the experience that they desire. At a purely economic level, if we train our own young people they are more likely to help us overcome the skills shortages. There is a proven link between young people being educated in a country environment and having the opportunity to learn skills and their returning there in the future. We have enormous skills shortages in Gippsland in the areas of health, engineering and a range of other professions.

I do not believe in criticism for the sake of it, and the government has taken some positive steps in its response to the global financial situation. The government’s role, however, does not stop with the $10.4 billion economic stimulus package—which I note for the record will benefit Gippslanders by more than $60 million in the period after 8 December. There is a criticism that, if this turns into a one-off spending spree, we will have no surplus to spend in the future and we may have wasted the opportunity. But, unlike some others, I have confidence that the economic stimulus package can work and I hope that the majority of people use it wisely. We do not want to see a leap in pokies revenue the day after the bonus payments arrive. I have faith that the majority of people will use the funds wisely. I fully support the payments to the very needy pensioners, carers and people with disabilities, but I wonder whether we could have done it better for family tax benefit part A recipients. It might have been wise to have provided families who are going to receive a lump sum of $4,000 or $5,000 with some assistance in financial management and to have ensured that the funding is used in a productive way. That is perhaps a weakness in the policy, but given the short time frames I understand the urgency of the situation.

Beyond those one-off payments, though, there needs to be a commitment to infrastructure investment, and that is where I hope Gippsland will receive a fair share of the resources which are going to be allocated under the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund. I acknowledge that Gippsland councils did particularly well out of the $300 million program announced last week after the local government summit. The Wellington, Latrobe and East Gippsland shires all received in excess of $1 million, and I am happy to report that there are many projects ready to roll in Gippsland as a result of that.

That is partly because of the complete absence of regional development initiatives over the past 12 months. There was a vacuum that was left after the disbanding of the Regional Partnerships program, so we are playing catch-up. I would like to see a longer term commitment to this type of program, where local government get a guarantee of funding of that sort of magnitude for two, three or four years into the future. They can then plan with some level of certainty for these smaller scale infrastructure projects which they can get going perhaps better than any other level of government.

Investing in regional infrastructure will obviously help local communities to prosper in the future, and investing in these longer term regional development projects is a way to stimulate economic activity in the longer term, and the construction phase will obviously assist with the unemployment forecast, which we all fear. The infrastructure itself should help improve productivity in the longer term. The previous government, as I said, did invest in regional infrastructure, it did support local communities to help create sustainable jobs and it did deliver results, but there is always going to be more work to be done.

As I cast my eye around Gippsland, there are a range of projects that I would encourage the federal government to consider very seriously in the next 12 months. The Sale indoor regional sports complex has a very good mix of an education outcome and a healthy lifestyle outcome. The Minister for Sport visited Gippsland during the Gippsland by-election process and I think she accepted the merits of the proposal. There is a $5 million shortfall in the funding required by Wellington shire. There is a commitment from the Wellington shire and the state government to participate in this project, which will develop a regional indoor sports centre as well as relocating the outdoor netball courts. I believe it is a project that the minister should look favourably upon in the future.

Similarly, in terms of major infrastructure development, the Building Australia Fund talks about investing in water infrastructure such as the Macalister irrigation district 2030 plan, which I have mentioned before in the House. Again, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry visited the region during the Gippsland by-election. We did get a lot of visitors during the Gippsland by-election, funnily enough. We had several ministers visit, and they were very keen on the Gippsland region and I appreciate the interest they have shown. I look forward to that interest turning into outcomes in terms of these infrastructure investments.

The dairy industry is a major player in the regional economy of Gippsland. The Macalister irrigation district is faced with ageing irrigation infrastructure. These real nation-building opportunities exist in the form of investments to upgrade the irrigation infrastructure, which would deliver long-term economic and environmental benefits to the Gippsland region. The irrigators that I have spoken to in the MID are very keen to pursue this option with the government in the future. There will be a mix of funding, I would have thought, from local sources and the federal government, with an opportunity to improve water security for the dairy industry and at the same time provide additional environmental flows for local streams. Of course, the benefits would flow through to the Gippsland Lakes, which is another topic that has been the subject of much debate in the Gippsland region.

As I said, there is always going to be a need for further investment in regional infrastructure, and I will be working with my community to ensure that Gippsland receives a fair share of the resources which are going to be allocated from these funds. The Lakes Entrance health precinct is one infrastructure project that also deserves consideration. I have written to the minister responsible in relation to that. It is a much needed expansion and redevelopment of the facilities at the Jemmeson Street site. The Gippsland Lakes Community Health staff and management do an outstanding job providing services from Sale to the New South Wales border. The plans are well advanced. There is about $1.2 million of federal funding sought and I encourage the minister to look upon that project favourably in the future.

It is a similar situation in Yarram, where a plan for a childcare centre had bipartisan support during the 2007 election. It ticks all the right boxes in being very much a community hub. It will allow professional women in Yarram area in particular to participate more in the workforce. At the moment, they have no option to access professional care. It will also help in the future to attract skilled workers to the region, because people expect to be able to put their children into care for some amount of time during the working week. I urge the government to get on board with this project—again, it does have support at state and local levels—and to work in partnership with these other levels of government to deliver that childcare centre as part of its response to the global financial situation.

I have also sought both state and federal government support for some infrastructure development in natural gas reticulation. Providing a cheaper and more efficient energy source to businesses and residents in the Gippsland region is a priority issue for me and for other members at state level. We have the quite bizarre situation where the Gippsland Basin produces an enormous amount of oil and natural gas, and I believe that more of the benefits should be accruing locally. We have had 40-odd years of natural gas and oil development at Bass Strait, and many of our towns, such as Longford, Yarram, Lakes Entrance and Orbost, are yet to benefit directly from natural gas reticulation. We have been able to build a pipeline through Gippsland to Cooma, Canberra and Sydney, but many towns along the route have not had the opportunity to access that natural gas. It is an infrastructure project that I have written to the state and federal governments about, and I encourage the government to consider it as part of its nation-building agenda.

I refer to one specific aspect of the legislation which deals with the Communications Fund established by the previous government. Under this legislation, that fund will be axed. I will be supporting an amendment to preserve that fund in the future. I fear that the Rudd government is stealing money that was set aside for the benefit of rural and regional Australians. These were some of the proceeds from the sale of Telstra, and the fund was set up to permanently assist in the rollout of future technologies to help modernise communications in regional areas for years to come. If the government is genuine about its claims for supporting regional communities, it will abandon its plan to take this money out of the Communications Fund and absorb it into the Building Australia fund. I support the investment in infrastructure, but I fear that Labor’s track record in economic management is about to come back to haunt us. I have serious doubts about the independence of these funds, and it remains to be seen whether the government will actually deliver the fair, open, equitable and non-party political infrastructure fund that it claims to present to us here today.

The government did state in the May budget that an infrastructure priority list would be considered by COAG, which indicated to us that the states and territories would have some say over which projects get the nod. I take up the point made by the Leader of the Nationals in the House: he referred to a spokesman from the minister’s office this week indicating that it would not be a COAG decision; the priorities would be determined by the government itself. It is an economic reality that the wish list will be much longer and will cost a lot more than will be covered by the funds to be allocated to them, so priorities will need to be set. I have little confidence that each region will get a fair hearing. I will be fighting to make sure that regional communities, including Gippsland, receive their fair share, and the opposition will be working to ensure that these funds do not turn into an election slush fund for Labor’s marginal seats.

I close my contribution to this debate with another reference to the Infrastructure Partnerships Australia submission:

Infrastructure investments must be determined and managed through a thorough, consistent and rigorous process to ensure that funds are invested productively. It is important that these nation-building funding initiatives are invested wisely, applying objective analysis and assessment to the project selection process.

Further, from the IPA:

We hope the regulations will provide further detail on what practical mechanisms, processes and checks and balances are required to be applied for each Fund to ensure responsible, consistent and transparent decision-making and funding allocation to the most critical, needed and worthwhile projects across transport, communications, energy, water, education and health sectors.

We all agree that investment in both large- and small-scale infrastructure is critical, and I urge the government to live up to its own rhetoric in the practical application of these funds.