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Monday, 15 June 2009
Page: 6049

Mr BILLSON (8:30 PM) —Tonight I grieve not for the people involved but for the way they have been treated by this government. I talk about the area consultative committees, a network of regionally based economic and employment agencies spread right across this vast continent, supported and guided by local members of each of those communities providing their business expertise, their insights, their connections with the training and education community and their understanding of the economic and employment circumstances of their region. They have brought all of that knowledge and all of that volunteer insight, horsepower and talent to the job of making sure that Australian government policies landed as well as they could in those regions and that those regions were able to optimise the benefit of Australian government policy.

What we have seen, and the scandal that is unfolding, is the shameless neglect and offensive ignorance that this minister for regional development, the Hon. Anthony Albanese, is showing towards these good people. I do not say ‘good people’ purely because of some political affiliation. In fact, I would imagine that most were not affiliated with the former government. They were selected on merit and for their capacity to contribute to these area consultative committees and to provide that on-the-ground, regionally engaged insight into the policy development and decision making of the Australian government. They did that voluntarily and they have done that for many, many years.

Right across Australia, and in no case worse than in the state of Victoria, those good people and the organisations that have delivered so much for regional communities are being treated shamefully. I am not just using ‘regional’ in the sense of those outside metropolitan areas. These regional area consultative committees were regions within the metropolises of Australia, bringing that guidance and that expertise to their communities, and they are just being allowed to wither on the vine.

They have not had so much as a thankyou letter from the minister—not so much as the basic courtesy of advising these organisations and the volunteer board members that bring energy and insight to their task. The minister has completely ignored them. The department which he oversees refuses to give clarity to those area consultative committees about their future. They are just told nothing. They are just being treated like mushrooms—kept in the dark and fed some kind of political excrement from this minister—while all of their energies over more than a decade have just gone unappreciated, unacknowledged and completely ignored.

To add insult to injury, what is happening today? In the local area consultative committee that includes the electorate of Dunkley a letter was received. It was not a letter of thanks from the minister, not a letter of explanation from this government about what the future of the area consultative committees would be and not an inquiry about how these good people could continue to contribute to the communities—none of that. It was just a sterile, insensitive and ignorant bureaucratic letter from the minister’s department. It did not inquire about how or where the minister could contact them to convey his appreciation on behalf of the nation. There was nothing like that at all. It was just a statement talking about ‘likely cessation’—this is the language of this minister.

Are they going to survive or are they not? Area consultative committees are being done over by this Rudd Labor government, and the good people in the communities that they have supported deserve better than just being treated with contempt, shamelessly ignored and treated as throwaway instruments of the Labor government. They get a letter about the ‘likely cessation of funding for your area consultative committee’. They are not told that they are going to be wound up or run through some Regional Development Australia outfit—just that they are going to be starved of resources. It is a matter of, ‘If you want to keep going, keep going, but you are not going to get any money from this Rudd government,’ so there is not even the courtesy of being upfront about the future of these area consultative committees. The letter goes on. It does not say thank you. There is not even the basic courtesy of thanks. It does not do that. It asks for more information to assist with the ‘finalisation of your operational funding contract’. There is still no word about their future—just that their funding contracts are going to be killed.

This is atrophy of a community organisation that has added so much to so many regions across Australia. They are looking for financial positions and statements about staffing levels. These are the same staff that the minister is so disinterested in that they have not been advised, invited or even guided to participate in whatever their new arrangement will be under this Rudd Labor government. So distant is the area consultative committee from the Rudd government, Mr Albanese and his department have not even done the courtesy of engaging the staff about their future prospects, but they want to know about the finances. They want to show some kind of interest as to whether there are any entitlements outstanding so they can be dealt with, so that every element of area consultative committees can be swept under the carpet while some new regime comes in run by state government departments nice and close, nice and tight so that they do not possibly do anything that might be offensive to the Labor political interest.

They want them nice and tightly under the control of the government, losing the very independence, insight and pra--g-matic analysis that these people brought to the task of making sure that Commonwealth policies worked for their regions, worked for their communities and supported economic and employment prospects. The letter goes on to ask about where funds might come from to wrap them up without ever saying they are going to be wrapped up. It goes on to talk about whether there will be any surplus funds, ‘Please tell us where they are because we want to know what you are going to do with them.’ Not, ‘Gee, we think we have killed your organisation and we are now no longer interested in area consultative committees.’ None of those things—just a bureaucratic, insensitive letter from a general manager of a department branch without even the courtesy of a thankyou from the minister involved.

I am here tonight aggrieved for those people for not having the recognition that they deserve. I am not just talking about South East Development. I say on behalf of a grateful nation and this parliament, to all those people who volunteered their time in area consultative committees right across this country over the last dozen or so years, ‘Thank you.’ Thank you for your contribution, thank you for your insights, thank you for your dedication and thank you for putting up with being comprehensively stuffed around by this Rudd government without the even the courtesy of being advised about their future. I say, ‘Thank you.’ I say that because that is what Minister Albanese should be doing. If he cannot bring himself to do that, get one of the minions, one of the parliamentary secretaries, to do it. Get somebody to just say ‘thank you’ to these people. He won’t but I will tonight.

Thank you to the South East Development organisation for all you have done for the region of the south-east of Melbourne since your first meeting in November 1994. Thank you to each and every one of the 36 board members who, over a 15-year period, have provided such selfless service on a volunteer basis and added so much to ensuring that economic and employment opportunities in our region were secured and supported as best they could be from prevailing federal government policies.

I say a particular thankyou to the longest serving member, Charles Wilkins, the chairman, a man who has come via the TAFE sector with many insights into skill development, training and what the business community needs in our region. Thank you as the longest serving member and chairman at the time the rug was pulled out from underneath your organisation. Thank you to Sandra George, who is currently the deputy chair, for her 13½ years of service. Thank you to the staff who toiled away under the fog and ambiguity of not knowing what was going to happen to them but kept working and stayed focused on the interests of their region. To the only two executive officers South East Development has had since 17 November 1994: Richard Percy, thank you for your 12 years of service; Anita Buczkowsky, thank you for your 3½ years of service. Thank you to the office managers, Iwona Malinowski and Gayle Baulch for their service.

Thank you to all those involved in attracting more than $5½ million of funding to the region from federal, state and sponsorship sources and for those that have supported the collaborative efforts of South East Development to get a further $8 million in partnership funding to get projects off the ground. Those $13.6 million of initiatives include the Regional Skills Audit; the Regional Home Based Business Project; regional business clusters; Careers Teacher Industry Focus; tourism projects for Casey and Cardinia; the Peninsula Job Team-New Apprenticeship Expo; the bits to build your business project; the Non-English-Speaking Background Home Based and Micro-Business Project; the Mature Age Employment Project; the Youth in Small Business video; the Heavy Road Transport Project; the Community Heritage Project; the Indigenous Cultural Awareness Project; the Peninsula Hospitality Project; the Synchrotron Project for the major projects they have helped get off the ground; the Business Incubator in Hastings; the Equine Industry Project—very important to our region; and  the Wine Industry Project, promoting manufacturing to young people to have them realise it is not a dirty old industry, it is high-tech and needs to be world-class every day. That was pursued under the MTEC project. There is the Maximising Maturity in Manufacturing project; the business retention program; the agricultural audit in Casey and Cardinia; the Frankston tourism and marketing strategy; the digital land register that they oversaw; and particularly the very projects that you see around our region, such as the Frankston Visitor Information Centre in my electorate of Dunkley, the Phillip Island Visitor Information Centre, the Radio Port Phillip communications transmission tower replacement, the Southern Peninsula Performing Arts Centre, the Mornington Basketball Stadium and the Gembrook Community Arts Theatre.

These are just some of the projects that we have in our community because of South East Development and the area consultative committees. They deserve the thanks of our nation. They deserve a little more courtesy than the minister has displayed. They deserve a whole lot more respect than these contemptuous letters that are sent out. They deserve a whole lot more credit than the nonsense that went on in Senate estimates, where Senator Conroy tried to fit them up with some grievance over Regional Partnerships. They deserve better. (Time expired)