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Tuesday, 1 June 2010
Page: 4851

Mr COULTON (5:07 PM) —As I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011 and related bills, following my good friend the member for Hindmarsh, sometimes I think that in this place we wander in parallel universes and only clash when we meet in these halls. The member for Hindmarsh spoke about the wonderful largesse and infrastructure in his electorate, and I think there is a technical term for it—it is known as pork-barrelling. It is important for the member for Hindmarsh and others on the other side of the chamber to know that the funding for this infrastructure came from the folding of the Roads to Recovery fund. Any telecommunications funding came from the folding of the rural telecommunications fund and from the growing regions fund of which over 90 per cent was spent in Labor electorates funding election promises.

Before I get onto what I really want to speak about I think it is important that we acknowledge the massive amount of pork-barrelling that has gone on by this government. It is unprecedented in the history of the Australian parliament. This budget has confirmed what many Australians already suspected—that this government is the most hapless and maladministered since the days of Gough Whitlam, and it is quickly surpassing Gough I would suspect. Its leader Kevin Rudd no longer stands for anything.

The last budget was a big-spending budget to counter the recession we never had. This one is even bigger. This one is an even bigger spending budget, fuelled by taxes on cigarettes and mining. Labor failed to control their spending after the global financial crisis and, as a result, we are now borrowing $100 million a day to fund their reckless spending. While Labor members have been speaking about the wonderful benefits of the stimulus spending in their electorates, it is important to note that in years to come their children and grandchildren will be paying off the debt from the spending spree that was instigated by one quarter of negative growth. That is important. When the member for Solomon is sitting back on the veranda overlooking the crocs gliding into the sunset, or whatever they do in Darwin, his grandchild will ask, ‘Grandad, how come we haven’t got that new road out the front?’ He will say, ‘It’s all about the debt. When we pay off the debt, we will get that road fixed.’ That is the reality of what has happened.

In the response to the stimulus spending, probably the first disastrous message that came through—certainly in my office—was about the Home Insulation Program. I wrote to Minister Garrett in July or August last year when I first started getting representations from people in my electorate about it. The sad reality is that the people who were stung by the Home Insulation Program, to a large degree, were the elderly. They were the ones who were a target for the shonks who hit this business. They did not have the ability to get up into their roof spaces and thoroughly inspect the insulation. Quite often I would be made aware of a problem because a visiting family member or neighbour would get up there and find that less than a quarter of the space had been filled or, worse, recycled paper products had been sprayed over exhaust fans and downlights, creating a huge problem. We have seen this across Australia. Unfortunately, we have had some deaths, house fires and massive rorting. This scheme was not managed. It was money shovelled out the door and it preyed on the very base nature of some people who took advantage of this. And, because of the lack of guidelines, it cost billions of dollars. It is a textbook example of what not to do and how not to run a government program.

However, I do not think the worst example is the Home Insulation Program. It definitely has to be the Building the Education Revolution. I will say on record here that I am not opposed to infrastructure spending in schools. If you go back to my maiden speech you will find that I said that education is the one gift that we can give people not only in Australia but across the world that will remedy a whole range of problems. Education will help remedy poverty, ignorance, conflict and create harmony amongst communities. Education empowers people to take control of their lives and it empowers people who are disadvantaged to know that they are being exploited. Education is the one thing we can give them. We do need to have appropriate infrastructure for this to take place.

My problem with this program, once again, is how it was managed. This government seems to have the idea that everything has to be managed centrally. I was not here during the last government but I was a mayor in a local shire and I saw the great work that was done with the Investing in our Schools Program where a little bit of money coupled with a bit of local knowledge and elbow grease from the local P&C meant they cobbled together from all sorts of things really great value-for-money pieces of infrastructure that they wanted, that they fought for and that they delivered to their local schools for a fraction of the money spent under this BER.

The first alarm bells that sounded for me in my electorate were when the first announcement came of the $1.7 billion overspend. I had been hearing rumours that things were not going very well, but there was intimidation of local school principles. It was made blatantly clear that if they spoke out against this program their jobs were in danger and any chance of advancement through the system would come to a halt. What was the first—in fact, only—running back of this scheme that Minister Gillard did? She cancelled the infrastructure for the central schools. Twenty-three central schools in my electorate had their projects removed. Collarenebri Central School has an Indigenous school population of 87 per cent. It is identified as the third-most disadvantaged school in New South Wales. They have a demountable that is 34 years old for a science lab. It leaks. It is out of date. They had the pegs in the ground for their new science lab. They were very excited to be getting it. Guess what. They came out and pulled the pegs out, saying: ‘Sorry, we’ve had an overspend of 1.7. We’re having cutbacks.’

The large schools in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth are still getting their multipurpose centres, their concert halls, their heated swimming pools or whatever, but Collarenebri, Galagenbone and Binnaway are not getting their science labs. Those were the first alarm bells. But then we started to get reports of what schools were being told they had to have that they did not really want. I went to a wonderful school with three students the other day. They have a whole new classroom. They moved into the new classroom and the other one is a storeroom. Is that a great use of money? But the real heart of this is that the buildings that came on the back of a truck and that with the greatest stretch of imagination may have cost $150,000 were charged out at $300,000 or $400,000. A COLA that would be identical to one the school fundraised for three years ago for $70,000 would then be delivered for $250,000. That is what has people upset. The minister does not seem to realise as she grins and nods, saying, ‘The schools I talked to are happy because they are getting infrastructure.’ Of course they are happy they are getting infrastructure. What they are not happy about is the waste of money.

I do not want to sound like Tim the Tool Man or the Demtel ad, but it gets worse. Several weeks ago I had a phone call from a contractor in Dubbo: Jarrod Kennedy. Jarrod Kennedy, by way of explanation, is a young chap—I am not sure of his age, but he would be in his mid-to-late 30s. Jarrod started his own business, Jarrod Kennedy Welding, with his wife Sandra 15 years ago. He has now built up to where he employs 15 people in Dubbo. He took a contract under the BER program to manufacture and erect the steel frame for a COLA over a playground at a little school called Marra Creek Public School. He also undertook to construct and erect the steelwork for a covered walkway at another little school in my electorate called Corinda State School. Due to a local construction firm in Dubbo going broke—I blame the minister and her department for not having proper scrutiny over the contractors who were allowed to do this program—Jarrod Kennedy was told that he was not going to get paid. So on a Sunday afternoon he took six of his staff and a crane, went out to the school and demolished it. He pulled it down, pulled it apart, put it on the back of a semitrailer and brought it home. He was owed $30,000 for the job at Marra Creek. For the one at Corinda he was also owed $30,000. So here is this young fellow having a go. He is what I presume the Prime Minister at the last election would have called a ‘working Australian’. He is owed $60,000.

Contractors around Dubbo are collectively owed $1.7 million, and the minister is washing her hands of this. Chris McMaster, who owns a farm supplies business in the town of Coolah, supplied $20,000 to the foundations of the classroom at Coolah. He is also showing no signs of getting his money. I understand that some of these contractors have debts of up to $140,000. They are facing severe financial hardship and in some cases bankruptcy. The minister is wiping her hands of this, and grins across the chamber. The people in my electorate who are watching what goes on in this place are seething.

But, in the words of the tool man, there is more. Tottenham school has a wonderful canteen. The canteen at Tottenham is a little old, but it is large and functional. It has a large, fully enclosed veranda so that in hot weather and on the rare occasions that it rains at Tottenham the kids have got somewhere to have their lunch. But the BER program decided they needed a new tuckshop. They constructed an eight-metre by three-metre canteen, which is the size of the average dog kennel that most people have in their backyard. There is no room for a pie warmer and no room for the freezers or the fridge—$610,000. If you want to see what this looks like, on the front lawn of this place tomorrow morning at nine o’clock they will be erecting a replica frame that is the same size as the tuckshop at Tottenham that cost $610,000.

The minister cannot understand what the problem is, but it gets worse. Exactly the same canteen that was built at Tottenham was put in the village of Toomelah. For those of you who do not know, Toomelah is an Aboriginal community on the Queensland border in the northern part of my electorate. In June this year, this government removed the CDEP program. So the only form of employment in the village of Toomelah was removed. The only chance of any dignity that these people had, of having some sort of purposeful working life, was removed. What did they get in response? The same eight-metre by three-metre tuckshop, but by the time it got to Toomelah it was valued $650,000. The elders at Toomelah tell me that that amount of money would have created an employment program for 10 people for a year. They have got a tuckshop that they will probably never use for $650,000. Since June, the elders at Toomelah tell me that there have been more than nine suicide attempts. The level of incarceration has increased. On my numerous visits to Toomelah there has just been a feeling of despair, but my representations to this government have fallen on deaf ears.

This government seems to focus on central control. What has made this country great in the past is giving people control of their own communities. I suspect the best value for money from the whole stimulus program was gained from the money that went to local government for community infrastructure. There was real value for money for the local community. I suggest to the government that, if they had given the management of the Home Insulation Program or even the BER to local government, maybe there would have been value for money and we could have got the same level of stimulus for a fraction of the money.

When a community feels that they have control of their destiny and they are confident about their future, they can actually plan for the future and grow and prosper. What has not been addressed in this budget are real and meaningful pieces of nation-building infrastructure. We talk about population and we now have a minister who is so disinterested in agriculture that they have given him another portfolio in charge of population. But the focus is all about managing the population in the cities. What would it have done to the economy of western New South Wales if just the wastage of the BER had gone to construct a freeway over the Blue Mountains to relieve the pressure from Western Sydney and to grow central western New South Wales?

What if the money wasted on the home insulation had been used to build a railway line from Melbourne to Brisbane? We would have a ‘steel Mississippi’ running down the east coast of Australia and ultimately on to Gladstone, Darwin and Perth. We would be able to build the economies of regional Australia. If we are looking at growing our population, we could put people where they can create decent lives for themselves and contribute to the economy. They could become members of small, vibrant communities and help them to grow. Where is the vision for that?

Where is the vision that would return the control of health to local communities? Where has that gone? We have a plan now that looks like building a federal bureaucracy for health to oversee the state bureaucracies for health—and somewhere down the line a patient might get some of the dollars. Where is the vision that would mean an Aboriginal girl of 17 or 18 years of age living in Bourke would not have to travel five hours to have her baby in Dubbo because there is a lack of midwives? Where is the vision to overcome that?

The frustrating thing about this budget is not so much what it has done as what it has not done. We have a responsibility in this place to empower our constituents to have enough confidence in the future that they will actually get up and do things for themselves. In the last six months, the government has reinforced the stereotype of useless government. In the last six months, the Australian people’s confidence that they will have a government that will look after them, nurture them, encourage them and give them an opportunity to do something for themselves has been lost. That is the real tragedy of what we are seeing here now. While the argy-bargy of question time in this place might be a nice piece of theatre, the people out in my electorate are telling me that they are disgusted with this government for squandering their resources and for not having enough trust in them to manage their own future. They want all of us down here to just get on with the job. So this budget was expected but it is extremely disappointing.