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Wednesday, 4 February 2009
Page: 377

Mr COULTON (12:52 AM) —I rise tonight to oppose the Appropriation (Nation Building and Jobs) Bill (No. 1) 2008-2009 and related bills because I cannot in good faith support something that amounts to a panic response to a problem that is confronting this nation. I also oppose these measures in protest at the way they were introduced into this House.

There has been wide-ranging debate tonight and contributions from both sides of the House that I have certainly enjoyed. But we have to get beyond saying that having a question about a bill that represents the largest amount of money that any Australian government has ever spent in one go and expressing reservations about that when we have had a bit over 12 hours to look at it is opportunism or politicisation. I think that does this place no justice. I did not come down here to represent the electorate of Parkes to offer blind support to anyone. I worked very hard to obtain the seat that I occupy here and I will not exercise my vote without due consideration of the facts.

There is no doubt that we are facing a time of great economic uncertainty. Unfortunately, in this debate, our side of the argument has been misrepresented. The extraordinary contribution by the member for Kennedy to say that the opposition has no contribution, no ideas and merely does not want to go into deficit is blatantly untrue. We certainly have ideas. Our concern with this package is that it is ill conceived. We believe that $42 billion is a grossly inflated amount to spend at this point. As the situation across the world unfolds, we need to have something in reserve. I think it is very risky to put all your hopes in one big shot. Half of this amount would have been more appropriate. Also some of the areas of spending are misdirected.

Apart from that, we have seen very little detail of this proposal. I was speaking to someone from my electorate tonight and they said, ‘Why are you bothering to debate this all night?’ I have asked that myself. The sum is $42 billion and we are expected to make a decision in this place. I am fortunate that it is now five to one but I expect that we will still be here at seven or eight o’clock this morning. The point is: if I do not offer a contribution, if I do not explain my reservations with this, I am offering docile support. Certainly, the people of the Parkes electorate do not expect that of their representative.

There is no doubt that $950 would be very welcome to a lot of people in my electorate. My electorate does not have a lot of wealthy people. For many of my constituents $950 is a lot of money. But the point that I raise with my constituents when I speak to them is that $950 actually equates to a $2,000 debt for every man woman and child. The appropriation bill that was put in with this legislation this morning, the one-page piece of legislation that is going to increase the government’s ability to borrow from $75 billion to $200 billion equates to a $10,000 debt for every man, woman and child in this country. As I said today to some of my own adult children who are working, in years to come when they are frustrated about the lack of construction in health, schools, roads, whatever it might be, they will have long forgotten what they spent the $950 on. It is the billions of dollars of interest that is going to be repaid over the years to come that is going to very much hamstring our future generations.

It is absolutely astonishing that in nine months this government has taken our economy from a $22 billion surplus into this massive level of debt considering that Australia has probably been the best placed and least affected of the countries around the world by this economic crisis. There has been a lot of discussion tonight, particularly from the government benches, about the importance of investing in schools. You will get no argument from me. One of the members said that he had 60 schools in his electorate and many of them would be eligible for up to $3 million in expenditure. I have approximately 150 schools in my electorate. Not many of them have over 400 students. Not many of them will be eligible for major pieces of building construction. Once again this package will be skewed to the metropolitan areas at the expense of regional communities.

As a new member going around my electorate I have found that universally at the schools I attend people sing the praises of the Investing in Our Schools Program of the previous government. I am not surprised that this government has reintroduced a spending package for schools, because they are run-down and in need of maintenance. There is no argument from me on that. But are we arguing the need to spend money on schools or are we arguing the need to borrow $42 billion at this point in time?

Unfortunately, as is the wont of this government, rather than letting the school communities decide where the money will be spent, they have been quite prescriptive about where it should go. Two of the largest schools in my electorate, Narrabri High School and Coonabarabran High School, are in desperate need of a multipurpose centre but, as they are high schools, under this program they are eligible for a language laboratory or a science laboratory. I have primary schools in my electorate that are in need of things other than an assembly hall, but that is what is on offer to them. Fourteen billion dollars is a massive amount of money. I believe that amount could have been much less and could have been given to the local school communities to use at their discretion.

The other thing that concerns me is the involvement of the state governments in this. I know that dealing with state governments has been a frustration for the previous government and for this one, but unfortunately we have to. The idea that a financial stimulus can be done quickly by filtering money through the state governments I am afraid is misplaced. Who knows where the world economy will be by the time a program is put in place and by the time the state governments can get their act together to work out where this money is to be spent? Quite frankly, it would be better if it were left up to the discretion of the schools. There are some massive problems with maintenance. At one of the high school campuses in Moree the toilet block offers no privacy for teenage girls. In this day and age that is a scandal. But by the time this package goes through the process and through the state government many months, if not years, will have passed.

Another omission is health. Health is without question the biggest issue in my electorate. Madam Deputy Speaker, you heard the debate in question time about the issues at Dubbo Base Hospital and Greater Western Area Health Service. The people at the Dubbo Base Hospital in western New South Wales, which services 200,000 people, may have accepted this package if there were the possibility of a new hospital. But there is no money in it for health. I have a hardworking community in Gunnedah who are trying to build a rural health centre where medical students can be trained, in a facility attached to the hospital, to help grow the medical profession in rural areas and provide a much-needed service to a thriving rural community. There is nowhere in this package that funding for this can be obtained.

The other great omission is aged care. I turned 51 yesterday—not an age that I am overly proud of but, seeing the Australian had me down as 60 years old in an article in January, I am quite relieved that I am still 51—so I am at the bottom end of the baby boomers. I have been saying to young people today that they will have to make places for my generation in their spare rooms to look after us in our old age, because we are looking at a huge crisis in aged care. The baby boomer bubble is coming towards aged care at a rapid rate. Aged care is struggling at the moment, and now is the time to provide for the baby boomers who are coming through and help us adapt to the changing face of aged care. I am sure anyone here would know that aged care has much greater need for higher care beds. We have moved away substantially from the hostel type accommodation. This would have been a wonderful opportunity to put something in place to cater for that, but unfortunately aged care missed out as well.

Another area that has been overlooked is water. The use of water, the saving of water and the allocation of water is one of the major problems that we are facing at this particular time. If we are going to boost the economy through infrastructure spending, there would be no better time to replumb the Murray-Darling Basin, no better time to reengineer Menindee Lakes and put a substantial boost of water into the Darling and down to the lower Murray. But those sorts of projects have been ignored.

Rural transport has been overlooked. Rural air services are in crisis. I have three or four towns in my electorate that have lost air services in the last couple of months. While that is bad enough for tourism and business people, the real crisis with the lack of air services is in supplying medical services. The Walgett Aboriginal Medical Service relies on fly-in fly-out medical specialists, whether they be heart specialists, physiotherapists, speech pathologists, cancer specialists or whatever. They fly in and fly out. Without an air service, it then becomes a health issue as well as a transport issue. One of the reasons that these airlines are having trouble and lacking confidence in the future is the removal of the en route subsidy. It would not take a lot of money, but all these things could have been looked at if we were going to have a balanced approach to the spending package.

Another area that missed out, of course, is the inland rail line. In previous times of hardship, if you look back in Australian history, you see that the Sydney Harbour Bridge was built after the Great Depression. There was the Snowy Mountains scheme, built after the Second World War. Major infrastructure projects have had the ability to get the country back into focus. A steel Mississippi between Melbourne and Brisbane would have a major effect, not only growing the economy of Australia but also providing a backbone to grow the economy of regional Australia. This is not mentioned at all in this package.

Another area that made for much merriment for the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry this afternoon was the largesse—the $950—that is going to the 21,500 farmers. Until a short time ago I was a farmer, and to put it in context that $950 would not have fuelled my tractor up once. To think that farmers are going to be overjoyed to get $950, and for the agriculture minister to pillory members of the National Party today because he claims they do not represent their electorates, really shows that he is a minister out of touch with the portfolio. My farmers are terribly worried about government debt. I have not had one phone call from a farmer saying, ‘Why aren’t you sticking up for another $950?’ They are more likely to say, ‘What are we going to do after the end of March, when EC runs out?’ This is a joke. The minister for agriculture, at most times, is an approachable and very pleasant minister and at times I have had a great relationship with him, but to get up and use the dire situation that we are in today, use this $45 billion package to make cheap shots at members of this House, I think is grossly inappropriate. I am thinking that perhaps the minister for agriculture is a closet National. I know he does have a pair of RM Williams boots and a felt hat, and maybe it is the politics of envy rather than the politics of ignorance.

The Prime Minister said he realises that the people in the bush are doing it tough, but there is very, very little in this package for the bush. If you talk to anyone out there in my electorate, they will say that they are used to tightening their belts, they are used to knuckling down and they are well aware of the consequences of a government that goes into massive debt. I am most upset at the way this legislation has been brought to the House and the fact that we are here at this time of the night to debate something of this magnitude with so very little opportunity for any research.