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Thursday, 27 November 2008
Page: 11697

Mr WINDSOR (12:25 PM) —I have listened with some degree of interest to the last 10 minutes of the previous speaker’s contribution. One of the issues that I would like to raise in relation to this debate on the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 and cognate bills is the process of accountability and transparency in the use of public funds. The previous speaker referred to the Regional Partnerships arrangements. I would also like him to look closely at what the Leader of the National Party had to say, I think it was yesterday, in terms of the processes that the current government seems to be deliberating on at least in terms of Infrastructure Australia and some of the funding arrangements.

I was a great critic of the previous government’s accountability or lack of accountability, particularly in terms of some of their discretionary funding. But I think the new government, the current government, is potentially at risk of if not repeating the same mistakes and following the same trail then of committing similar mistakes. I think there was a classic example of this last week. The government put in place a meeting with local government and there were various funding arrangements reached. I have not heard one person criticise that, and the reason they did not criticise it is that everybody got a fair go. The previous government had a similar scheme with the Roads to Recovery program. Everybody got a fair go, they accepted the formula and they were pleased to get direct funding from the Commonwealth—funding direct to local government rather than passing it through the states.

The common denominator in those two schemes is that they are seen to be fair. I think the response from the mayors and others across Australia to that fairness should be sending a signal to government generally that you do not have to pork barrel to gain acceptance from the community. In fact, if you are seen to be fair, you are rewarded at the polls. A classic case is the Regional Partnerships arrangement under the former government and the way in which some of that money was expended, and the shameful way that some people who still reside in this place think it was a good idea. They lost government. Part of that process was the loss of credibility in terms of the broader electorate, even those who received the largesse. There were a number of examples raised in the inquiry. I have been part of that inquiry, and the inquiry has not finished yet.

One of the things that really does need to be examined is the Financial Management and Accountability Act and the penalties that accrue when there is a breach of the law. Quite clearly from what the Audit Office had to say in terms of the previous arrangement, there were breaches of the law. So one would have to ask, and people in my electorate have asked, ‘What is the penalty?’ There is none. Nothing happens. So what do we do for the next lot? Allow a system to develop in a full knowledge that you can breach the law without anything happening? I hope not.

I would hope that when the Minister for Finance and Deregulation does have a look at the Financial Management and Accountability Act and the breaches—he may not go on some witch-hunt to persecute those who perpetrated the breaches in the past—he remedies those failings for the future. The Australian National Audit Office and others, I believe, have the potential to assist in doing that. That is going to be a real test of this government, because it made great play of the weaknesses of the previous government in relation to the way it spent taxpayers’ money. I will be making sure where I can that when there are similar transgressions they are made public. It would be extraordinary if the minister for finance or the government does not want to fix the problem in terms of the penalties, the accountability process and the way in which the cash is followed. In the previous system, if recipients were getting $1 million, they had to meet certain milestones for whatever it was they were doing. The department or someone ticked them off—in some cases, no-one bothered.

The Audit Office—and I have great respect for the Audit Office; I think the work that they do is outstanding—do not have the capacity to find out who got the money. The money was spent on projects, some of which never occurred, and we do not seem to be able to find out who got the money. I think that is something that we need to know. If we are spending public funds, we should know who gets it. It is not good enough to say, ‘Well, I received it to have a look at something and I have spent it and then I did nothing with it because it was not worth looking at.’ There have been cases where there have been blatant transfers of taxpayers’ money to projects that were supposed to happen but did not happen. So what happens to those people? If we go out and speed in our vehicles, we break the law. We pass laws in here that the general public have to abide by, and here we are in this place abiding by breaches of the law.

I say to the members of the government who are here that, if you are genuine and you look at these problems and you solve them, you will be rewarded by the people. They have a view now, whether it be the whiteboard affair of the Labor Party years ago or Regional Partnerships of the more recent past government, that that is the way all governments operate. I have some faith in Prime Minister Rudd. I think he would prefer to go that way, but it is going to be a real challenge not to follow the path of ‘Because the others did it’, not to go to war in Iraq because Bob Hawke went there, not to use that old process, ‘We can do it; we can go without asking the people because the other guy did it some other time.’ So I challenge the members of the government: do the right thing by the people and you will find that they do the right thing by you. If you ever want an example, look at that local government conference the other day. I know people who are diehard supporters of the conservative parties in my electorate have sent Prime Minister Rudd glowing thankyou notes for being recognised for once and not having the stuff washed through the state and for being able to make a few decisions at the local level. That is the way to build infrastructure in this country: give the people that are on the ground the capacity to feel as though they are part of the process and that they can go ahead and do it.

I emphasise once again that the finance minister really has to have a hard look at the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. Where there are breaches, irrespective of whether it is a minister, a departmental person or a recipient, there should be penalties. Those penalties should be clearly imposed upon whoever breached the law. There has to be, even for decisions where an electoral promise was made, some accountability at the ministerial level as to why that was chosen and not something else, irrespective of process. I ask members to look at a few of the comments that the Leader of the National Party made yesterday, because they were important. They were about what seems to be developing as a bit of a Clayton’s process of assessment of priorities in infrastructure. If that is there now, it is something that the Prime Minister and others really need to have a hard look at. If you put in place a dummy run of assessments to determine priorities across the nation and it is nothing more than a washroom to wash the money through to friends and those loyal, that is not picking the real priorities for the development of this nation.

One of those priorities that I see is obviously transport in the electorates of New England, Hunter and Parkes. The corridor to the port of Newcastle—and I recognise one of the Newcastle members here—is absolutely essential to this nation and our part of the world in the New England, the north-west and the Hunter. There is a third coal loader being built at the port of Newcastle at the moment which has a loading capacity of 120 million tonnes—an extraordinary amount of coal. There are major developments of coal in the Hunter, the New England and the north-west, some of which I am disputing in terms of some of the ground water issues. Nonetheless, there is major development taking place.

Ernst & Young carried out a $5 million inquiry that the former government instigated when it was looking at the inland rail route and the various options. I took the time to read the two volumes and they were pretty heavy going. One of the things that was identified as part of that process was that on the eastern side of Australia, the three states of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, there is 220 million tonnes of freight movement—that is not export freight—and 110 million tonnes of that is in the Moree to Newcastle corridor. If we are serious about exports and all the things we talk about, there will have to be major upgrades of some of the rail facilities in that corridor, not just in the Hunter but on the Murrurundi Range and further, through to Gunnedah, Boggabri, Narrabri et cetera, which are not all in my electorate. That is critical in terms of priority on the eastern seaboard. I have heard some of the Queensland members talk about Gladstone, where there are similar issues. If we are serious about all of these issues, whether it be grain production, cotton production, coal production or other minerals, infrastructure of that nature has to be the first cab off the rank.

The other significant area that I would like to spend a little bit of time on is the issue of water and the importance that it has for this nation. We currently have a bill before the House looking at the Murray-Darling. I have amended some legislation in this very place. It was supported in the Senate yesterday. I was highly delighted that the Liberal and National parties supported the amendment. That amendment was going to allow a scientific study to be done of the interconnectivity issues of groundwater and surface water in the basin before mining exploration and mining took place. I am appalled that only some minutes ago the National Party withdrew its support for that amendment. The mining industry magnates have been at work overnight. An amendment that has been supported twice, not by the government but by the coalition, in this House and in the Senate has just been overturned in the Senate. That is a disgraceful betrayal of people who have put their trust in them. It is also a betrayal of a very important piece of infrastructure.

I am not against coal—I have just been talking about upgrading railway lines so that coal can be transported and so that coal loaders can be maintained—but I am against coal where the current state based approval process is so flawed that it takes no regard of the offsite impacts. The legislation that Senator Wong and others have brought into parliament about the Murray-Darling, which I support, ignores the difference and assumes that you can still have a state based coalmining approval process, but now we have a Commonwealth legislative arrangement for water. What happens when they interact? We do not have a process that actually works. We have some nonsense that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts carried on with here a few weeks back that, under the new bill, the minister or the authority may or could instigate some sort of inquiry if in fact there is an unintended diversion of water. Translated from French, that would mean, ‘If the mine has some impact on the water, we will look at it.’ What if it is irreparable? What does it mean to the $10 billion Basin Plan that all this is about? Why are we spending that money when we do not have the scientific knowledge of these systems and the contribution they make to our groundwater? And we talk to the people at Lake Alexandrina and say that we are doing something! We do not know what we are doing. We buy a bit of water out of a property and it becomes the major event of the year. But there is no water there.

Surely if we are going to develop inland Australia and infrastructure in inland Australia we really need to know what is happening in terms of our water resources. One of the reasons that this new bill has been introduced is to assess risk of various practices across the basin. Translated again, that means, ‘Check out the irrigation industry and do something where there has been overuse or overallocation’—and there has been. The National Party betrayed country people this morning. Here we are, removing the need for a risk assessment process for a coalmine, for exploration. What we have now is this flawed process—they cobbled together an amended amendment in the Senate—which virtually mirror-images the flawed state process, where when you go to mine you do an EIS, which has no regard for any offsite impacts because we do not know the scientific linkages between the water systems.

I would have thought that Senator Wong, Kevin Rudd and others who have played on this Murray-Darling stuff would have taken the time to actually look at the sites that are there. It is not about stopping mining; it is about removing an activity that can have an adverse impact on part of our environment. What you could end up with if the proper scientific work were ever done is a three-dimensional map which shows the areas of risk, and then we could assess the risk based on real science. Obviously there will be vast areas where there is no risk.

Senator Wong and others say that they are doing the Murray-Darling a great favour and leaving this state based process in place. They are saying that the state based water process did not work, and I agree that we have to bring it together to make it work. They leave this gaping hole in the system to allow the money men to pillage and plunder once more. I think that is an indictment of the three major parties. The Labor Party voted against it and the Liberals and Nationals changed their minds in the Senate, voting one way yesterday and a different way today. That is to their shame. They will never be able to say again that they support the food bowl in the Murray-Darling system.