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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 208


Mr JOHN COBB (12:16 PM) —I rise to speak on the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and cognate bills at a particularly serious time in our nation’s history—certainly from an economic and a futuristic point of view. Firstly, I have to talk about something I spoke about in this House last night. That is the state of the nation’s health administration and what goes with it. Last night I informed the House of the death of a man yesterday in Orange hospital. On Saturday evening he collapsed on Mount Canobolas, five minutes flying time to the hospital through the Orange helicopter service. He was three hours getting to the hospital because of the incompetence and the political bias of the New South Wales government, as they had not equipped the service, as they did the Wollongong and Sydney helicopters, with a winch. Through sheer incompetency and sheer political bias, the western New South Wales service does not have anything like the same capacity as the Wollongong helicopter, even though it has to deal with longer distances and worse terrain—the whole spectrum. Nor is it funded enough to be able to deal with issues over most of New South Wales, when the Wollongong helicopter service is—and it is only 12 minutes flying time from the Sydney base. The state of the health system, particularly in New South Wales and particularly in western New South Wales, is so bad that, when I listened to the Prime Minister speak yesterday about the $42 billion package, I kept thinking, ‘We are going to hear about health in a minute.’ I am still wondering why I have not heard a word about health.

What we heard about is pretty much a social package. I do not think it is a stimulus package. As our leader, Malcolm Turnbull, said earlier this morning, there are no certainties when you are dealing with economics and the issues around them. But when you look at this package, it very definitely is not a package that, is there for the future. It is a package that is going to have a dead end. There is no flow-on effect. There is no end result. There is no productivity. There is no long-term gain for those involved in producing or for those involved in working. It is all here and now and short term. Yes, I guess that you could say that without doubt it will keep some jobs in the building industry, but it does not go beyond that. And we are talking about $42 billion here. It does not provide any ability to repay any of that $42 billion, because there is no productivity, there are no taxes coming back from it and there is no GST coming back from it in the natural course of events. Politically, it might have been a great thing at the moment for us to say: ‘Wonderful! We will go along with $42 billion.’ There are a lot of families that will get the best part of $1,000 because they have a single worker, they have children or they are family tax benefit B taxpayers. Yes, it would have been very easy to do that. In my electorate, I am sure there are a lot of people who would benefit from that. But there are also a lot of people who have a future in this country.

In my electorate in the last four months, well over a thousand jobs have been lost in the mining industry. Most of these workers have families. It is true that some of them fly in from other parts of Australia to work, but almost every single one of those thousand workers earns over $50,000. My understanding is that a person’s tax situation as of 30 June last year determines whether or not they will receive the various payments—$950 for their children or whatever—so I do not think that one of those people will receive anything. Even if they do get a $950 one-off payment, if they have any brains at all they will put it in the bank for when things get even worse than they are now.

There is not one thing in this package that is going to encourage an employer to offer someone a job or to make it any easier to get a job. The only job assistance will be to hold jobs in the building industry. There is nothing to make it less onerous for an employer to offer a job or to keep somebody in a job—not one thing. You cannot escape the fact—given that even the government is currently talking about seven per cent unemployment in a very short space of time—that the No. 1 issue that we have to look at now and in the near future is jobs, the No. 2 issue is jobs and the No. 3 issue is jobs. I keep looking at this package, and I see a social package. I do not see anything in it that encourages people to offer more jobs or that makes it easier for employers to keep jobs. There is just nothing there to do that, and there is certainly nothing there that will do that in my part of the world.

When I look at what has happened—as I said, over 1,000 jobs have gone in the areas of Cobar, Nyngan and Parkes, just in my part of the world; that is, one job for every 90,000 people over the age of 18 who have the right to vote—it is quite incredible. I especially find it incredible that there is nothing in this package to reverse or to help that trend.

When I look at where this money is going I see that there is no long-term future in where this money is being spent. There is no flow-on, no comeback, no return of production, no return of tax and no return of GST to help pay for the $42 billion. I can see what has happened here. The government have got together and said, ‘We’re going to go into deficit. Okay; we can handle $5 billion. Oh, come on; we can handle more than that.’ Suddenly they have gone into deficit and, with Labor governments the world over, once they have taken the first step it is very easy to keep taking more. It is not so easy for those of us who have to pay it back. I remember well the pain this country went through from 1996 to 1998 while steps were taken to reverse the last trend. You cannot deny that it can be necessary to borrow money to get an outcome, but this is a one-off situation; there will be no flow-on to help it come back.

Look at where the money could be spent. If you really want to do things to help the country, to help productivity, to help jobs and to help skill levels, you should look at water infrastructure. When the now Leader of the House was shadow minister for water and infrastructure, he kept saying that the $10 million water plan was not being front-end loaded. He said that we needed to front-end load it and do all the infrastructure things in the first three years. It was a little different when Labor got into government. They wanted to front-end load it, all right, but not into spending money on water. They wanted to buy it. They just wanted to take it out of production. As I have said in this House before, they were not trying to sort out the Murray-Darling Basin; they declared war on the people in the Murray-Darling Basin and they still are. I agree with his front-end loading right now—but invest in the infrastructure. There is one project which is currently being looked at. We provided money to do a study on how to save water in the Macquarie Valley. There are enormous amounts of water that could be saved. Off the top of my head, I think there are 60,000 or 70,000 megalitres—about 10 per cent of all the water in Burrendong Dam could be saved in that region, and this is just on two irrigation schemes, and including the towns of Cobar and Nyngan, which depend upon water being pumped from the Macquarie through the Albert Priest to those towns and the mines that support them.

You could spend that money there now and you could create jobs. All the miners who are losing their jobs around Cobar, Nyngan and Parkes would be perfect people to be involved in the infrastructure work that would be needed to put in new channels, to put in pipes and to make the schemes around Trangie, Narromine and Nevertire all the way through to Nyngan much more water efficient and much more productive and give viable options for the future. I cannot think of anything that would meet the current crisis better. It is better than simply throwing money away on a one-off situation. I guess it is not popular politically to suggest investing in industry rather than in a one-off situation to people. But in the long term it all has to be paid back by the same taxpayers who are going to be getting a short-term benefit today. You can invest in returning things like water—not just for agriculture but for towns and water authorities around regional Australia and everywhere. But that seems too complicated—it is not simple enough—and apparently it does not hit the particular target group this government wants to spin doctor.

When I look at it I see the way it is intended to be spent. Malcolm Turnbull, our coalition leader, mentioned earlier this morning that the old Investing in Our Schools Program, which is being copied now, was very popular and, with the non-government school system, every cent that was allocated to them went to them. However, for New South Wales at least, because the state schools did not have a separate accounting system, because they could not actually outsource their auditing et cetera, it had to be done through the New South Wales Department of Education. Naturally, they took 15 per cent of it. Given that this is basically what they are going to do again, this means that the states will pull in about $3 billion just by saying that they are administering part of the $42 billion. I think that is quite incredible. I think that to put up this package without getting the states to agree not to do that is totally irresponsible and ridiculous.

I welcome $950 going to farmers who are receiving EC payments. However, that is very much targeting particular people. There are 21,000 farms receiving the household support payments or the money for homesteads. That would be in the order of one farm in every five in Australia. That is fine, but I think we would be far better off spending money on roads that were going to have tolls on them, not only to help production and to help the passage of people and everything else but because there would be a future in it and a long-term gain in it. It would help our taxpayers today, and their children, to repay this money, because it will have to be repaid. It took too long, and it was too hard, to pull back the $100 billion that we had to pull back. I have no doubt that we are going to end up with every bit of $200 billion being owed. The current government is trying to extend their credit limit from $75 billion to $200 billion, and I have no doubt they will spend every cent of it.

If the government wants to do something serious about investing in the community and about having a stimulus package, why would it, on one hand, pull $60 million out of CSIRO a few months ago, when now it is talking about putting $88 billion in total so far into rejuvenating the state of the nation in Australia? That is $88 billion, and yet not long ago it took $60 million out of one of the organisations which provides for the future of our country better than most. Quite a lot of that $60 million came out of research into agriculture, the money that CSIRO spends on horticulture and other things to ensure long-term sustainability, ability to deal with disease and ability to come up with new and efficient ways in horticulture and other types of agriculture. I find it incredible that the government does not want to invest in water except to buy it and take it out of production. It does not want to invest in the future of agriculture. The government wants to take away money that has been earmarked for long-term research. Especially when you consider that all the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and his boss want to talk about is climate change, when the government is expecting farmers to produce more with the same or with less, why pull this money out of agriculture and then spend $88 billion on Australia one way or another?

I think we have to look at everything from the point of view of the future. We cannot for one second forget that $42 billion does not come easily and that it is very hard to pay back. Like everybody else in this House I, too, have many schools in my electorate—the biggest electorate in New South Wales—in the far outback or in places like Blayney, Sofala, in the east, or Orange. Every time I see these schools—and I have a large family myself—I think at least $2,000 of this particular package, let alone what might come in the future, is owned by every man, woman and child in Australia. Let us not forget that it has to be paid back.

I look at communications and I think that it is not long ago that this government wiped a contract that was already signed by the previous government to provide broadband to regional Australia. They would do very well to relook at that contract, talk to Optus and Elders and say, ‘Would you consider doing that again?’ because by the end of this year they would have had broadband available to almost everybody in rural and regional Australia. It is quite obvious that the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy in the Senate has not the faintest idea where he is going with broadband and that there is nothing in the future. Broadband is about productivity. It is about communication. It is about helping country people to do things at a time when we are going to be up against it. And we will need every means at our disposal, be it social or, more to the point, productive—be it for a farm or for anyone with a business at home—to fix the broadband up for very little money by comparison with what is currently being looked at to throw at whoever they can come up with to give them a viable tender. At the moment I think the minister has no idea where he is going. Just think about it: by the end of this year regional Australia could have had a very viable, very broad-ranging broadband network.

The $42 billion—$2,000 for every man, woman and child in Australia—is not long-term money. It is here to be spent and, even with the schools, even with the infrastructure spending, there is no gain afterwards. Whether their school needs it or not, it would be nice for kids to have a new library or hall or whatever it might be. But we have to, at the moment, take a view which is in the best, long-term interests of Australia at a time when we are going to need it. I look at this and I think it is a little bit like the Democrats in America using the current situation to pursue a social rather than a stimulus agenda. We have to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Let us remember we are talking $42 billion, not $42.’ It does not matter how quickly you say it; it is one heck of a lot of money. It has to be paid back. Right now we have to think about our children’s future as well as our future.