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Thursday, 27 November 2008
Page: 11692

Mr RAGUSE (12:05 PM) —I should commend the previous speaker, the member for Groom, for his impassioned speech. Being a fellow Queenslander I know he has a passion about the state. I am concerned, though, that he is not a little bit prouder of what we have achieved in Queensland. Certainly, investment in the area of infrastructure has been going on for many years. That investment has not been, to a large degree, underwritten by the federal government, and that is essentially what we are going to change as a government. We are nation builders, and I am going to talk more about this as I go through my speech today, because it is an understanding of our vision as a government. The Rudd Labor government is a nation builder, as were the previous Labor governments. Labor governments in the Whitlam years, certainly the Hawke and Keating era and now into the Rudd period are about long-term vision. Unfortunately, sometimes that long-term vision gets cut off along the way simply because the Liberal coalition governments come into office and they really do not understand what we are doing or pick up where we have left off in terms of putting those parts together.

I rise to speak on these three consequential bills: the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008, the Nation-building Funds (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008. This package of three bills makes way for the government’s 2008-09 budget announcement to establish three financial asset funds to provide financing across sources to meet the government’s commitment to Australia’s future by investing in critical areas such as transport, communications, energy, water, education and health, with the COAG reform fund as the vehicle that will provide grants of financial assistance to the states and territories.The legislation repeals the Higher Education Endowment Fund, with the funds being transferred into the Education Investment Fund. It also allows for amounts to be transferred from the Future Fund to the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund, and the Health and Hospitals Fund.

For a long time many Australians have been calling for funds to be invested back into the community. Last year we went to the election outlining our plan for nation building. We want to get on with the job, unlike the opposition, who have continuously delayed the legislative process in the House and the Senate. This is having an effect on the economy. Business wants the government to get on with the job and is becoming increasingly frustrated with the delays. In the current climate we need to ensure security.

The COAG Reform Fund will take effect from 1 January 2009. COAG has agreed to this new framework for federal financial relations. A key element of this new framework is the provision of new incentive payments to drive reforms. The Commonwealth will provide national partnership payments to the states to support the delivery of specific projects, to facilitate reforms or to reward those jurisdictions that deliver nationally significant reforms.

On budget night the Treasurer announced that we would establish three new nation-building funds—the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund and the Health and Hospitals Fund—on top of the COAG Reform Fund. These cognate bills will lift our productivity capacity by providing leadership in the planning, financing and provision of significant national infrastructure projects. The COAG Reform Fund will not be a fund to bail out states and territories. They will be subjected to an agreement between the Commonwealth and states and territories. A national partnership agreement will set out performance benchmarks and the amount of payment for meeting each benchmark.

Financial assistance to the states will be subject to the independent COAG Reform Council assessment of whether the performance benchmarks have been achieved. At present the current law is convoluted and involves many complex payment arrangements in various areas. There is no specific account that currently exists to channel funds to the states and territories. This legislation proposes exactly that. This legislation will allow for the funds to be made available on the condition that the state governments meet their obligations. This is not a slush fund, as has been mentioned by those opposite.

This legislation will allow foresight in infrastructure, education, health and transport. The Deputy Leader of the Opposition in speaking on these bills yesterday laid out her achievements when she was the Minister for Education, Science and Training. Unfortunately, in her speech the Deputy Leader of the Opposition failed to mention universities. The previous government’s record on universities is appalling. An article in the Age newspaper on 4 March this year stated:

The Federal Government had cut total public funding to the universities by 4% in the period 1996 to 2004—compared with an OECD average increase in public funding of 49% for tertiary education in the same period.

…            …            …

Monash University vice-chancellor Richard Larkins said it would take the Government some time to rebuild the sector after years of under-investment. But a starting point, he said, would be to supplement the $6 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund by an extra $2 billion a year, bolster research grants, and deregulate the HECS funding system so universities could set higher course fees.

Universities went backwards under the Howard government and all that evidence points directly to a lack of understanding in terms of nation building. Shortly I will talk about how the education reforms and our education revolution are also part of this nation building.

The Deputy Leader of the Opposition was also scathing of state governments. Again this is the blame game. We came to government talking about the necessity to get out of this blame game, but here it continues. She quoted Dr Henry Ergas, who is conducting the opposition’s current tax review. She said:

I would like nothing more than to stand here today and say that these additional funds were invested wisely by state governments.

…            …            …

Dr Ergas found that a very substantial part of the increased funding went to higher wages for public servants and increasing the numbers of public servants, increasing the public sector. Only a very small percentage of that windfall, of that funding to state Labor governments, was invested in the states’ infrastructure.

That is just a nonsense. In Queensland I have direct evidence and understanding of that. Queensland and the nation have had major issues with water. The critical last few years has meant some major investment. One critical investment was nearly $9 billion for securing water for South-East Queensland. The previous federal government contributed only $400 million for the western corridor and $100 million towards the green power for the desalination plant on the Gold Coast. Out of $9 billion spent by the Queensland government only $500 million was contributed by the federal government.

The Treasurer’s second reading speech stated that these nation-building reforms have two essential outcomes: increasing productivity and sustained improvements in the efficiency and quality of services for all Australians. He also said:

The reforms to the Commonwealth-state relations will be the platform on which significant policy change is delivered in Australia in key areas such as education, health and infrastructure.

When the Rudd government was elected we promised to end the blame game, to modernise the Federation, to build the productive capacity of the economy and to ensure better services for all Australians. This is a new era in cooperative federalism.

We talk about the enormous growth, and I have talked about Queensland. Certainly the member for Groom would understand the enormous impact of our growing state. It is very easy to blame state governments, particularly the Queensland government, for the building of infrastructure. There is huge investment, but there is also still huge growth in the numbers. Almost 1,500 people a week—that is a net figure—arrive in South-East Queensland. It is almost the case that they come across the border, find the Gold Coast, put their bags down and say, ‘We’ll stop here.’ People are moving to Queensland. It puts enormous pressure on the infrastructure that we have and we need investment to roll out new infrastructure.

I have previously mentioned in this chamber the population counter as you leave the Brisbane airport. Only two years ago Queensland celebrated its population reaching four million. Just last week I think the counter showed almost 4.3 million people, so 300,000 people in a short period of time have moved to live in Queensland. Particularly in the south-east that is putting enormous pressure on the infrastructure and this has meant that the Queensland state government has had to invest heavily.

I heard one of the Queensland opposition members some months ago having a go at the state government about the huge debt it is carrying. The debt is about nation building. It is about assets. It is about investment. It is about building infrastructure. None of the state governments around the country would be borrowing so much if the former federal government had played their part in investing in the states. The interesting thing for Queensland and my electorate of Forde is this. A number of times I have extolled the virtues of Forde. We are in the south-east corner of Queensland and are a Gold Coast hinterland seat. We are lacking good, solid infrastructure. That is due to 12 years of neglect. There was no funding federally to support some of the major projects that we have had to put together in Queensland.

With 1,500 people arriving in Queensland each week, we only have to drive on the roads in and around the city to understand. Not only are the roads choked and blocked but we now have extensive delays because of some of the road building that is going on. Good investment in infrastructure is what the Rudd government are all about. We are about aligning the three tiers—and we are now calling them the three ‘spheres’—of government to work together. I wonder whether the opposition really understand what we are attempting to do. They talk about us announcing inquiries and setting up committees and boards. That is exactly what we need to do. This is not ad hocery. This is not a case of throwing money at a problem. This is about building a future and building a structure. We talk about hard, physical infrastructure, but it is also about the social infrastructure and soft infrastructure that we must put in place. Nation building is not just about building roads and bridges. That is only a small part of it.

I briefly mentioned the three spheres of government. Last week was historic when over 400 mayors from the 569 councils around this country were brought together. That is the first time we have had local government members as a group sitting across the table from and talking to our federal ministers. This is a reform. We as a federal government are attempting to bring those tiers of government together. There have been reasonable relationships built between the state governments, and the opposition would argue that is because they have been of the same political flavour. I know from my work in government circles in an advisory capacity over the last few years that states are very competitive. Madam Deputy Speaker Burke, you would understand that as well. The reality is that those state governments worked together because they had a common interest. The common interest was essentially surviving without the support of the Howard government.

Now we have a new opportunity. While the political flavours around the country will change, that should make no difference to our ability to build our nation. Infrastructure Australia, the Australian Council of Local Government, the rollout of national broadband and the education revolution all fit as a package. It is about putting together a jigsaw. It is about addressing the needs of a nation via a vision and putting the appropriate pieces together. It is interesting to hear the opposition argue that we are putting up committees or running inquiries. It is all about information gathering. For the first time in 107 years local government want to engage with us as a government and want to be part of the discussion about how they better build infrastructure. The $300 million package is very much an incentive package to put money into small projects in local government authority areas to stimulate the economy. I will not go into detail about Keynesian theory and about investment by the public sector in stimulating the economy in uncertain times like now.

The reality is that Labor governments build nations. I spoke in this chamber yesterday about education, about education reform and about what we are attempting to do with curriculum. That is integral to building our nation. The member for Groom spoke about the computers that are arriving in schools as part of the education revolution. His view was that this was ad hocery, that we were just buying computers and sticking them on desks. The member for Groom and the opposition generally do not understand what the education revolution is about. It is not just about computers. It is not just about putting boxes on desks. It is part of the solution. The education revolution is very much about the way we teach and train our future generations. Computers are tools; they are only part of that process. Part of the solution is to have a nationally based curriculum, and we are working through the process to establish a national curriculum.

I mentioned in that speech the fact that change always brings concerns. The teachers in my electorate I have spoken to understand the need for a federal approach but are somewhat concerned. They explained that distrust developed over nearly 12 years of the Howard government. The schools had a lot of funding ripped from them in so many ways. It was a case of not providing the resources needed for quality education. The Rudd government took to the people at election time the education revolution initiative. Part of my history is as an educator. I have written and developed a lot of curriculum. It is very much the basis of getting an understanding of what we as a nation need and what skills we have to give our future generations to carry on the legacy that will be established by the Rudd government.

The funds will specifically go to the outcomes that we as a government decide are priorities. When I say ‘we’, it is about those three spheres of government talking together. It is about good dialogue and good involvement with those three levels of government. There is some concern from the other side that we would consider recognising local government in our Constitution. I am amazed. If we remember, back in 1974 the Whitlam government attempted it. In 1988 the Hawke government tried it. Of course, on both of those occasions the opposition that came from the other side essentially meant that it did not occur. We now have an opportunity. We have 569 councils. I am sure the majority of those want to see recognition. That recognition would allow us as a government to engage in the process of delivering good infrastructure on the ground, by having efficiencies and by cutting back on and getting rid of the red tape that causes so many frustrations at all levels.

I heard the member for Groom saying that Labor state governments are wasteful and are not doing the right thing, that they are spending unwisely. That is just untrue. I have given some examples about my home state of Queensland, which is also the home state of the member for Groom. I would have expected that he might have been a bit more proud of what we have been able to achieve. Queensland is a very strong state. There are a couple of other states around the country that are doing as well—and some are not doing as well.

The reality is that it is all about us as a federal government being able to engage at that level with the states and with the local authorities to provide much needed infrastructure. As I said, we have established Infrastructure Australia simply to be able to put some good processes in place to allow the delivery of all of that infrastructure, both soft infrastructure and physical infrastructure, as part of our nation-building agenda.

I spoke this morning in fact about the new funding arrangements with local government. This certainly replaces the old Regional Partnerships program. That just shows you what happens when you do not have a process and you do not have something that is quite critical in terms of how we apply funding directly to certain priorities. The inquiry looking at Regional Partnerships certainly supports the fact that there were some bad decisions made under that program. In fact I am being kind when I talk about bad decisions—there were some very direct and deliberate decisions made in favour of certain electorates. Without trying to politicise this too much today, the reality is that in my own electorate I have seen public funds wasted and ultimately not able to deliver the sort of infrastructure required on the ground.

I am going to conclude by simply saying that this is a major reform for federal and state relations and certainly at the local government area. State governments have been calling for reform in many years. We need to work in partnership on infrastructure, particularly social infrastructure such as health, communications and education. These cognate bills remove the complex system of federal financial relations. There will be performance based benchmarks for the states to meet their obligations in receiving financial assistance. There will be an assessment by an independent COAG Reform Council. This will not be money just handed out to the states; this will be managed responsibly, as I have outlined in my speech today.

The Rudd government are serious about ending the blame game, and we have. These bills are one step in cooperative federalism, and I commend the Treasurer and the Minister for Finance and Deregulation for moving this agenda forward. For all of these reasons, I commend these bills to the House.