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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 276


Mr CHESTER (5:11 PM) —It is a pleasure to rejoin the debate on Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and related bills. There is no-one on this side of the House or in the broader public who has much confidence in the capacity of the state governments to deliver the education and schools program either on time or on budget. It was interesting in question time today to hear the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry lecturing me about the needs of Gippslanders and the Maffra Secondary College. It was a very unusual choice of example by the minister, given the debacle which surrounded the funding for the Maffra Secondary College project.

The state government of Victoria put out a press release announcing funding for the Maffra Secondary College and then said, ‘Whoops! It is no go—there is actually no funding for Maffra Secondary College,’ and backed right away from the project. It only required a few street marches, petitions and a campaign by the local MPs and the community residents themselves to actually get the funding restored, so that was an unusual choice by the minister if he was hoping to build any faith at all in the capacity of state governments to deliver on these projects under the education and schools program. Gippslanders really do know how much the minister cares for them anyway. He has visited the region three times—all in the lead up to the Gippsland by-election—and has not been seen since. We would love to have him back. He is most welcome to come to Gippsland any time, particularly as our farmers are dealing with ongoing struggles with the drought.

There is great support for investment in the education programs associated with this package. The problem is that there is no balance to the package. There is nothing there for the health needs of my community; there is nothing there in terms of aged-care needs, which are not even mentioned at all. I do take up the comments from the member for New England, who called for a bit of caution—and perhaps people should slow down and take a bit of a deep breath about this whole debate given the importance of it. I am not one to completely discount the package and say it is all poor public policy because I do believe there are a lot of good policies in the package, and I have referred to a few of those earlier today.

There are some good initiatives but, again, I fear that in the roads and transport area we are to some extent just bailing out the state governments from their responsibilities. One particular package that is of interest is the $150 million for boom gates to improve safety at level crossings. There is no argument from either side of the House regarding the need to improve level crossings, but we are talking about $150 million for 200 projects. Right across Victoria there are probably 1,000 unregulated crossings which have been the subject of great community debate. I believe we could force the state governments to match the funding dollar for dollar and get 400 boom gates installed if that were to be the treatment of those particular level crossings. I think we are letting the state governments off scot-free from their obligations in relation to the safety of level crossings.

There is a little bit of extra funding for the roads Black Spot program. The Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government pointed out today that he would expect the Nationals to support that, and we certainly do support the additional funding in relation to regional roads projects. It was the Nationals, in conjunction with the Liberal Party, who initiated Roads to Recovery, one of those programs which has stood the test of time and has not been disbanded by the current government. Roads to Recovery is one of those excellent programs under which local communities get to decide the local priorities, and I would hope that in this particular package there is some option for that to happen if the package is passed by the Senate.

There is also some good news in the package in relation to some of the environmental aspects of it. But again, in terms of the most effective spend in this regard, it is the sheer scale of this whole package and the lack of negotiation or discussion with the broader community which bothers me. There is no extra funding here, for example, for Landcare, which is the real, practical, labour-intensive program. We are talking about job creation. This is a real opportunity for labour-intensive work in weed control, pest animal removal, erosion or revegetation works. It would create jobs and deliver real benefits to the environment right across regional Australia. I do accept that the ceiling insulation program and the solar water rebates are both reasonable initiatives. But again I question the scale of the program. Is this the best way to be spending $42 billion as part of this initiative?

The government has failed to negotiate on this package and involve the broader community in a debate when we have the time to do so. Can we really afford the extent of these programs and will we really stimulate the economy and create the jobs which should be created and which the Prime Minister himself has indicated are the main focus of this entire strategy? We have no evidence that the first package worked, and there is still no proof that this one will either.

While I am on the environment, there is that little matter of actually delivering on previous promises. My good friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry—I am sorry to be talking about him in his absence—has promised $3 million for the Gippsland Lakes. It was promised in November 2007. Thirteen months later, not a single cent has been delivered on that promise. We have exchanged correspondence on the issue. Apparently we are waiting for contracts.

So, for 13 months we have been waiting for contracts for a $3 million project. We are talking about a $42 billion project to be rolled out over the next four years. I have very little confidence in the capacity of the government to deliver on that promise. The Gippsland Lakes funding that I am referring to is a critical program, which has widespread support across the community, to reduce the nutrient flow into the Gippsland Lakes, an icon of the Gippsland region. I urge the minister to expedite that funding as soon as possible. Given that the government could not even deliver $3 million on time, I have no reason to be confident that the rollout of the $42 billion will work, particularly once we involve the dysfunctional state governments. We have all had experience of the state governments’ failure to manage money properly in recent years.

The public housing construction program, particularly relating to the defence forces, has a lot of merit. As the member for Gippsland, the East Sale RAAF base is a critical component of my regional economy, and I would be a madman to suggest that improving the stock of Defence Force housing is not a good strategy. I am certainly in support of that, but again I seek more time to negotiate these issues through the government. There are elements of the package, as I have repeatedly said before, which are quite good. I can see how the building program would deliver benefits in terms of jobs in the construction industry. But, on the overall scale of things, I am stunned that it is a $42 billion package and we are given 12 or 14 hours to debate it here today with no preparation whatsoever. It smacks of arrogance and it is a discredit to the government.

The failure of this government to negotiate or to talk to others about the package reflects their view that they know everything. Alternative viewpoints are being put in public already. Michael Costa, the former New South Wales Treasurer, suggested in the Daily Telegraph today:

The Government should focus its attention on providing an environment that supports business confidence. The quickest way for the Government to restore business and consumer confidence is through tax cuts.

These are alternative ideas that, when we are talking about a $42 billion package, should be fully explored before we just rush headlong into this program. I do accept the need for a stimulus package, but not this one, and I will be opposing the bill. I urge the government to go back to the drawing board, to slow down and to take the advice of the member for New England in that regard, to listen to the views of others and to return with a realistic package we can all support. It is easy to be popular and to give away money that we do not even have; it is much harder to do the right thing and make the tough decisions. (Time expired)