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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 11994

Mr LINDSAY (11:14 AM) —This morning I would like to bring to the parliament’s attention what is, effectively, a reality check. That is, after only 12 months of a Labor government, under Mr Rudd and Mr Swan, Australia is less prosperous, which cannot be disputed; our economy is rapidly getting weaker, which cannot be disputed; and the outlook for Australian families and businesses is more uncertain than ever, which also cannot be disputed. When crucial decisions are needed, Rudd and Labor are panicked into taking poorly thought out responses and the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 and cognate bills is one of them, and I will explain that during my contribution to the parliament this morning.

The government’s handling of the financial crisis worries all of us. They have actually made things worse. It must be difficult for my Labor colleagues to know and understand that things have in fact been made worse by decisions taken which have been poorly thought out. In Australia, household wealth has declined, prices continue to rise and job security is very significant on my radar. There has been a massive fall in job security. There has been a political strategy for Australia but no economic strategy.

I read Paul Kelly’s article in the Weekend Australian. Doubtless, many of my colleagues would have read the same article. Paul made the very interesting comment that, at a time when Australia is facing really tough times, the Labor Party is hell-bent on introducing legislation, currently being debated in the House of Representatives, which will see a further reduction in the security of people’s jobs. I think that is a very sobering comment from a senior journalist in the Australian press gallery.

The bill that we are discussing this morning is, by and large, funded almost entirely—

Ms Hall —Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Is the member for Herbert willing to give way?

Mr LINDSAY —Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Ms Hall —Just a point of clarification: given the statement by the member for Herbert about the legislation being discussed in the other chamber, does that mean that he still supports the previous Work Choices legislation and, if so, could he clarify that.

Mr LINDSAY —The opposition has given a commitment that it will support the bill currently before the parliament. Moving on, the bill we are debating here is funded almost entirely from the surpluses built by the previous government. The Building Australia Fund will have initial capital of $12.6 billion: $7.5 billion is from the 2007-08 budget surplus, plus there are the proceeds from T3 of $2.7 billion and the balance from the Communications Fund of $2.4 billion. The Education Investment Fund will have $8.7 billion—capital of $2.5 billion from the 2007-08 surplus, and the remainder from the closed Higher Education Endowment Fund. The Health and Hospitals Fund will have $5 billion, which comes entirely from the 2007-08 budget surplus.

When you look at the spreadsheet on the funding for the particular elements of the funds in this bill, you find that in aggregate there is $74.7 billion from previous Howard government funds and $15 billion from the Rudd government in 2007-08. The additional funding that will be required—$14.7 billion—does not look like being available because the Rudd government has been spending the anticipated surplus, which will have evaporated by the time that that money is required. So there are certainly some question marks over the funding in this bill, and I raise those questions with the parliament this morning.

There are some problems with the legislation as well that the opposition notes. In particular—and we saw this occur with the hurried announcement of computers in schools some time ago—running costs for all the projects will have to come from the states and territories and the federal budget. Those running costs include salary costs, on-costs and, particularly, maintenance. They will be very high for health, research and education projects because of staffing, and modest to high for the transport, energy, communications and water projects. So it is okay to tell the Australian people that we are going to have this massive Nation-building Funds Bill but it is not okay to provide for the ongoing costs and the maintenance costs that will result from the expenditure of these funds.

Investments that are proposed in these funds may also replace previously planned state and territory public works for no net economic gain. I am sure my Labor colleagues will be just as concerned about that as I am. We want to see new works. We want to see the state governments fund their responsibilities. We do not want to see them dropping what they had planned and then using the federal funding in this suite of bills to pay for what is their responsibility, which of course produces no net economic gain and not a single extra job. The RBA governor has very clearly said that it is still an important fiscal measure to pass the good policy test. Poor public policy proposals should not be accepted simply because they are presented as boosting short-term aggregate demand. No-one could disagree with that, and that is why we had to ensure that there are mechanisms in the legislation to ensure that any project that is proposed passes the good policy test.

I have been very much on the public record saying that the key element that Australia faces at the moment is protecting jobs. Yes, there are issues like deficits and interest rates and inflation, but there are also the issues of families and job security. It is a double whammy if an Australian loses their job: they are unable to continue to pay taxation for the revenues of the Commonwealth of Australia but they also impose an income support burden that the government has to pay out. But, more than that, it can be very traumatic for a family’s breadwinner or breadwinners to lose their job or jobs at a time like this. This is particularly the case in my region, where we have a lot of employment in the mining industry, where people are paid very significant sums for their labour in the fly-in fly-out operations and they have geared their operations so that they have very high mortgages. With the downturn in the resources sector and the mining industry, these people are losing jobs in North Queensland and finding themselves unable to meet their very significant mortgages. That must be very traumatic for the families involved. I saw on the weekend that another company—I think it was CopperCo—was placed in receivership in North Queensland. Century Mine is certainly under some doubt in relation not to closing but to jobs losses, and there will be others in the pipeline. In fact, many of the junior explorers have ceased exploring. So my view is that this legislation should be very much about jobs.

It will not surprise you to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I have a wish list for where I would like to see money that may be available under this suite of bills spent in North Queensland. In relation to health, it is really important that the 100 beds that are promised by the state government for the Townsville hospital, to be delivered in 2011, are brought forward now. We recently had the situation where a cancer patient died on a trolley in a corridor in emergency after being there for eight hours. That appals everybody. It was because there are not enough beds in the Townsville hospital. The state government has continued to promise beds and has continued to say that the problem will be fixed, but it does not get fixed. The plans are there, ready to go. The sites have been identified. This is a project that we can kick-start immediately and one that will in fact generate quite significant employment.

The second project is the mall redevelopment in Townsville. Those of you who have been to Townsville will have seen that our front door is an absolute disgrace. Tourists say, ‘How could the capital city of North Queensland have a situation where its front door is in such a terrible condition?’ So we need a contribution, hand in hand with those from state and local governments, to redevelop the mall. Those plans are ready to go. We can start construction early next year and we can get another significant employment project running.

Roads are next on my agenda, as they are on many members’ agendas, and particularly the Mount Low Parkway, which is choked to death at the moment. It needs to be three lanes. Beck Road in Condon and Kelso needs to be connected from Harveys Range Road right up to upper Kelso. It currently does not connect and it needs to be built because it provides the alternative access to Kelso. Currently the only access is Riverway Drive, and if there were some kind of major accident on Riverway Drive there would be some significant problems. We need to make Riverway Drive four lanes from Bamford Lane up to Allambie Lane to reduce the delays that are currently happening because of increased traffic on that arterial road.

Education is my next focus, and particularly our star university of the tropics in the world, James Cook University. There is an opportunity to establish a very significant mining institute there. After all, we do sit right on the very edge of the north-west minerals province, probably the most important prospective minerals province in the world. I would like to see us help James Cook establish that mining institute to lead the world in research and provide assistance to the many mining companies in the region.

There are two more things on my list. The first is the ocean terminal in Townsville. Down at the port we want to see a new cruise ship terminal/defence terminal built. When the new LHDs come on stream that Defence has currently ordered, their customer is in Townsville—the 3rd Brigade. They are the ships that take the ready deployment force in the 3rd Brigade—1st Battalion, 2nd Battalion and, soon, 3rd Battalion—to whatever trouble spot they need to go to. They take the helicopters of 5 Aviation Regiment in Townsville along with them and they need to have suitable wharf space to embark the troops, the equipment and the ammunition. A joint-use cruise ship and defence terminal makes great sense and would be a welcome addition to our city.

Finally, at the weekend I was privileged to be on Magnetic Island, which is in my constituency, off the coast of Townsville. I was talking to the islanders and the deputy mayor, who was with me, about the need to complete the Nelly Bay to Arcadia pedestrian link. It is very, very dangerous around that headland, where the two bays are joined. It is not a large project. It is a project that has already been designed and that can be built now. They are the kinds of projects that we need out of these infrastructure funds: projects that will have lasting benefits but projects that can be built right now to get the impact that the government is seeking.

I draw the parliament’s attention to the concerns that we on this side of the House have in relation to the government not delivering, and this is in the context of this suite of bills that are before the parliament. When the Labor Party went to the last election, they said that they would deliver an education revolution, providing every Australian secondary school student in years 9 to 12 with access to their own computer at school, but this has not happened. We were told that the government had a national plan to end the buck-passing between Canberra and the states, that the blame game would be ended, but that has not happened. A classic example of that is the COAG meeting on the weekend, which was just more of the same. We have seen it all before. The premiers say, ‘We’re going to screw the Australian government for more money,’ things are done behind the scenes, it is all agreed that they will get a few more dollars and then the premiers go out and say, ‘We were very successful and we got some more money,’ but they were always going to get it in the first place.

The Rudd government promised to take responsibility for fixing our hospital system. ‘The buck will stop with me,’ said Prime Minister Rudd, but of course it has not happened. Mr Rudd said he had a tax plan for Australia’s future, but this has not happened yet either. Mr Rudd promised to build a state-of-the-art fibre-to-the-node national broadband network, and we all know where that is at the moment and the convoluted difficulties that the government is facing by not addressing the very specific issues in a proper way. If the coalition government had been re-elected, that NBN would have been well underway by now. Mr Rudd also claimed he was an economic conservative and promised to make sure our economy delivered for working families and to have policies on the cost of living, but of course that has not happened either.

It is sort of a depressing record for the first year of the current government and one that makes me sceptical about how this bill will go when it passes through the bureaucratic system. We will support this bill with amendments in relation to transparency clauses. We are particularly interested in clauses that look after the whole-of-life asset, the financial commitments from other stakeholders who will take up payments under this bill. We will ensure that money will be spent only on projects that satisfy competitive neutrality guidelines and we will ensure that all reports to the Minister for Finance and Deregulation from the advisory boards and the Future Fund board are made public. All of that is pretty practical and common sense, and I would hope that the government will accept those amendments when they are moved—I assume in the other place—and we will all get a better outcome. I certainly hope that this suite of bills will give the economy the boost that it so desperately needs at this time.