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Thursday, 27 November 2008
Page: 11712

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (1:36 PM) —The bills before us, namely the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008, Nation-building Funds (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008, are fundamental to the future of Australia. In fact, when the plan was first brought before the new government—and even as late as May of this year, when the Rudd government brought down its first bud-get—I am not sure many of us realised how important it would be. Since that time we have all seen the turnaround in the world econ-omy—something that has reinforced the need to make every cent count and to look for efficiencies wherever we can. Why are the bills so important? They are important because they seek to bring the relationship of funding between the Commonwealth, states and territories into the 21st century. It will mean a new and streamlined approach to deal-ings between levels of government. Rather than their battling for months and having to put up with a less than acceptable result, the aim is for them to work together for the best result for all.

We have all heard the term ‘ending the blame game’, but surely this is an objective we should all be working towards rather than spending time blaming each other for the deficiencies in the current system. Wouldn’t it be better to look at improving the system from the bottom up? Indeed, I would have to say that the message that this government received from the voters at the last election—and the lesson that the state governments and other levels of government should have heard—is that people are sick to death of the blame game. They want us to cooperate. They want us to get on with it. They want us to do things effectively and efficiently. That is what we need to do, and these bills seek to establish the framework to allow that to happen.

The COAG Reform Fund will be established to distribute funds to the states and territories, and these will be crucial funds in building our nation in the new century. The COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008 is all about a partnership—a framework—between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. At a micro level you may be interested to know that this is, in a way, similar to a very successful partnership established in my home state of Tasmania, by the late Premier Jim Bacon, with many of the local councils around Tasmania. I use this as an example of a framework.

These partnerships were built on a shared agreement between the Tasmanian government and the councils involved. They came about from a recognition that local government, in this instance, was in touch with local needs. The first partnership was with the Circular Head Council in my electorate of Braddon. For those who do not know, that is on the north-west coast of Tasmania. The partnership was established in 2000, early in Mr Bacon’s first term as Premier, though many others signed over the years since have produced many benefits.

The partnerships in Tasmania steered away from the tradition of having specific programs and annual begging before the state budget. They allowed the councils to work directly with ministers and the key people in their departments. It built a rapport bet-ween the government and councils, often despite political differences, which saw them work-ing together in a much more cooperative and cohesive way. That spirit of cooperation is maintained to this day and was evident in these very halls just last week, when many of the mayors from my region and around Tasmania and the country came together for the Australian Council of Local Government.

I know the mayors from Braddon came here with open minds, ready to cooperate with this government, to play their part in building a better future for Australia. Some got more than they bargained for. That is what the $300 million Regional and Local Community Infrastructure Program set out to do and is all about. The $300 million in funding will go towards boosting local economies and helping all 565 councils and shires to build and refurbish community infrastructure such as swimming pools, sports grounds, community centres, libraries and walkways. This includes the $250 million proportionately allocated to every council and $50 million for strategic projects.

I know councils in my area and their regional body, the Cradle Coast Authority, are already working hard to put some important and very worthy projects forward. The community infrastructure program plays a vital part in tackling the impact on Australia of the global economic crisis. It will give councils in our local areas the extra spending power to continue to stimulate their local economies, through the continued employment of both their own workforces and contractors, to carry out these much needed projects. The councils will also stimulate private enterprise through buying supplies and equipment for these projects. And that is what these bills are intended to do at the national level; what I am talking about at present is the local level.

A number of councils and community groups in my region have already shown their ability to cooperate on significant projects such as those promised to my electorate and now funded by the Rudd government in its first year in office. A long list of those projects are now making their way from the drawing board into reality in Braddon. These include the exciting redevelopment of the Ulverstone Showground and Recreation Cen-tre, for example. The Central Coast Coun-cil has reached agreement with the government on a $1.8 million funding injection in what will be a major development for the region.

It is also another great example of cooperation at the local level, with the council and the state government also making important, significant financial contributions to this project. The redevelopment will culminate in the provision of a new stadium, which will be a multipurpose area for dozens of local sporting and community organisations and will enhance the local cultural precinct. It will be a flexible area and is already on the list to host national events, and I am sure that once it is completed and in use it will become a honey pot for many other events, sports and activities.

This is the type of cooperation we are talking about that can be achieved in partnerships between federal, state and local governments. I have a number of other examples in Braddon and would like to share some more with you. These include a commitment from the Rudd government to put $750,000 into the Circular Head Community Recreation Centre, in Smithton in the far north-west of my electorate. The money will go into the second stage of what is already an impressive, well-used and much needed development in the community of just over 8,000 people. The current facility has been great for Circular Head but the expansion will serve a new purpose: to recognise some of the great sports men and women who have come from the area over many decades with a hall of fame.

We are also working closely with community groups for the benefit of many in the region, such as the Port Sorell Surf Life Saving Club, where I was privileged to take the Prime Minister recently during his visit to Tas-mania. The surf club, which has grown from a caravan less than a decade ago, will receive $200,000 to add to its current clubrooms, in an effort to help the club continue to improve its membership in what is one of the fastest-growing—and, I might add, most beautiful—areas in Tasmania. It will allow them to continue with the vital task of training young and not-so-young people in important life-saving skills such as CPR and first aid, as well as water safety and awareness. Clubs like these also make a great contribution to the health of the community through their emphasis on competition, both on and off the water. These are just a few of the examples where partnerships between various levels of government and the community can have real and obvious benefits for the community.

It is partnerships and working hand in hand that will make this bill work. The bill is an important part of the modernisation of federal financial relations and fits in alongside the nation-building funds. This includes the Building Australia Fund, the Health and Hospitals Fund and the Education Investment Fund, which will be used to finance projects through the states and territories in these specific areas. The government is committed to implementing an infrastructure investment program allocating funds for transport, communications, energy, water, education and health. This year the government will contribute a total of $12.6 billion to the Building Australia Fund for transport, communications, energy and water infrastructure, including proceeds from the Telstra 3 sale and the balance of the Communications Fund; a total of $8.7 billion to the Education Investment Fund for education infrastructure, including the balance of the Higher Education Endowment Fund; and $5 billion to the Health and Hospitals Fund for health infrastructure. This is an infrastructure program of historic proportions, and the government has committed to making future allocations to the funds as budget circumstances permit.

The COAG Reform Fund will be used to channel money from the nation-building fund to the states and territories for other needs. It will also disburse funds in future budgets to states and territories for specific reform as part of building the productive capacity of the economy and delivering better services to all Australians. The aim is to provide greater funding certainty to the states and, in tandem, not leave them in a situation where they are so hamstrung by regulation that they cannot efficiently and effectively spend the funds that they have. This will include the framework decided in March this year at COAG, which agreed on a new framework for Commonwealth-state financial relations. That framework includes a rationalisation of specific purpose payments, but without a reduction in the total Commonwealth funding which those payments would have delivered. The aim is to reduce the number of specific purpose payments from more than 90 to around five or six national agreements. These will be aimed at the delivery of health care, affordable housing, early childhood development and schools, vocational education and training, and disability services. These will be ongoing national agreements, but with a periodic review rather than the current system where the states and territories must come cap in hand every few years for an allocation along with a long list of dos and don’ts. Indeed, it is a pauper mentality, a beggar mentality, for the Commonwealth to be standing there with whip in hand ready to coerce or otherwise.

The states will also continue to receive funds that are not tied to any specific purpose, such as compensation for the national scheme for the regulation of companies and sec-urities. The reform will take away the emphasis on conditions and be more about meeting mutually agreed objectives and outcomes. So it is indeed a true agreement. Each of these agreements will specify, for example, what the Commonwealth and states expect to achieve from their joint involvement—that is, the objectives and expected outcomes; the role of each jurisdiction, the responsibilities it will be accountable for and the outputs it will deliver; and indicators and measures of performance to assess whether or how well a jurisdiction has achieved outcomes.

The new framework will recognise the important partnerships established with the states and territories with the new national partnership payments. These come under three specific areas: project payments, for example to support national objectives and help fund specific projects such as road and rail under AusLink; facilitation payments, which may be used to help a state to lift its standards of service delivery in areas identified as national priorities; and, finally, reward payments, an incentive to encourage states to undertake reforms, and structured in a way as to encourage the attainment of performance benchmarks. After all, we are talking about the use of taxpayers’ funds and, in any agreement, there needs to be stated aims and objectives, measures of performance and measures of the outcomes. That is common sense and we expect nothing less, yet to arrive at this has taken nearly a century of argy-bargy between the states and the Commonwealth. So this legislation is nothing more than common sense.

Mr Windsor —Who wrote this?

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —Indeed, it should be supported. I am sure the member for New England is going to rise after me to support this! These reward payments will be similar to the previous National Competition Policy payments made to the states to encourage them to adopt competition reform. Through the reform under this bill, the funding of these agreements will be streamlined, negotiated as a single financial package by treasurers for eventual endorsement by COAG.

Importantly, this will allow portfolio ministers to focus on the policy aspects of delivering more effective and efficient services rather than the politics. Now that is something. This is where the rubber will really hit the road in avoiding the blame game, cost shifting and duplication that we have suffered under for years and years. Rather than spending weeks and months quibbling over dol-lars, the ministers and their best and brightest will be able to concentrate on how they improve their respective portfolios—that is, by developing good policy, good programs and delivering them efficiently, effectiv-ely and cooperatively. Surely, this is the best way forward in solving some of the problems that have dogged our nation for so long.

This legislation will mean that, rather than having to spend time meeting onerous checks and balances, the people on the ground can go about finding better ways to deliver the services that are so needed by our communities. Indeed, I think one of the great benefits of this—and it is something that I will be particularly monitoring—is that it will do away with needless duplication not just in services and programs but in bureaucracies that so absorb taxpayers’ moneys when we try to roll out services in this nation. Rather than having precious resources tied up on compliance, they can go into the improvement and delivery side of the various programs and projects.

States and territories will be given increased freedom to design and implement innovative methods of service delivery, of course within the context of the mutually agreed national objectives. Ultimately, this will help to protect Australia and all its residents from the current pressures we face in the global economy. Unfortunately, yesterday the Prime Minister delivered further bad news on that front. That is why it is absolutely crucial that these investment funds are rolled out sooner rather than later. They are an investment in both now and the future. I hope those opposite will give this all the support that it thoroughly deserves.

It is about nation building, and these bills are part of a broad package of legislation and measures being taken by this government to help shield Australians from the global financial crisis. Bringing on the nation-build-ing agenda is a vital part of this, and it cannot be done in isolation by just one arm of gov-ernment. It needs us all to work at all our levels of government, federal, state and more recently local. Indeed, local government are generally some of the best providers of services. I am really pleased at the way this gov-ernment is trying to re-enhance relationships with local government. A partnership with the states and territories and, indeed, our local governments is crucial to this and the COAG Reform Fund is a vital part in delivering this partnership and the efficiencies it can provide into the future.

As I said in my introduction, this is a major step forward for the government and it is much more important than when it was first put into motion, particularly given the serious economic circumstances that we all face, share and want to do something about. We as a parliament have a responsibility to do whatever we can to improve the relationship with other levels and spheres of government, state and local. Let us join together, all parties and the Independents, if they can raise a vote and get into this House to support us, in supporting this important piece of legislation which is one of the building blocks to help to sustain this great nation and to see it go forward strongly into the future of the 21st century. I commend the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008 and related bills to the House.