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Tuesday, 1 June 2010
Page: 4869

Dr STONE (6:27 PM) —I also rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2010-2011 and Appropriation Bill (No. 2) 2010-2011. You always hope that in a parliamentary democracy like ours governments of all persuasions will have proper regard for the wellbeing of the people and the country. You hope that a new government will learn from their previous mistakes or inadequacies in office and build on the legacy of the previous government to guide the nation lightly to a better place. Unfortunately, this Rudd Labor government has shown itself to be not fit for office. From the coalition, it inherited a strong economy, with a well-regulated banking sector, with people confident of their futures and investing, with some of the highest workforce participation rates ever and with more women than ever in the workplace being paid more than ever. There were surpluses and future funds designed to ensure the next generation was not made to pay for the profligacy of their parents.

Under Labor we have seen some of the most profoundly and universally held Australian values ignored. These values include the belief that where you are born in this country should not constrain your rights to a decent job, an education, a fair return for a fair days work, access to adequate health services and personal safety. These values include intergenerational caring for the environment and a recognition of the intense and close interrelationship between a healthy viable community and a sustainable environment which the community manages as part of their own lives and the future of their families.

Labor have shifted policy settings and reassigned resources, resulting in an undermining of the viability of too many communities and families, particularly those in rural and remote communities in Australia. They have made it less likely that we will have food security in the future. They have depressed a whole sector of our society whose livelihood depends on their being able to grow food or fibre. They have made it less likely that people can remain independent and live a dignified old age from the earnings of their working lives. I will come back to address the issues which relate in particular to rural and regional families—the sorts of families that I represent as the member for Murray.

Labor has failed to understand that working families need affordable and accessible childcare services if both parents—or a single parent managing a household—are to participate in the workforce. A welfare-dependent family is not a family that can look forward to a life with all the opportunities of others. We know that children who grow up in welfare-dependent households are more likely to be welfare dependent themselves, to have mental health issues, to have law-and-order problems in the future, and to certainly not have the advantages in life that all of us aspire to for our children and grandchildren. When the coalition was in power we were striving to make sure that as many individuals and families as possible were able to be in work, to enjoy the fruit of their labours, and to save for their futures. And we were trying to make sure that there was adequate superannuation for people to use and to be independent in their older age.

One of the critical and key elements for individuals, particularly women, to be able to remain in the workforce or to move in and out of the workforce has been an attitude of acceptance that they need to balance both a career and parenting. This requires affordable, accessible, good-quality child care. The days of having a mother-in-law or a mother next door to look after your children are long gone; although, under Labor’s new regime, there are more grandparents being asked to leave their own employment to look after children, because Labor has systematically reduced the affordability of child care—in particular for regional families but also for families in suburbia and inner metropolitan regions. This is for families with very young or older school-age children as well.

You cannot believe the long list of slashing and cutting of childcare support that Labor has done. Labor has slashed the child care rebate by reducing the cap and indexing for four years. They claimed that they would improve cash flow by paying the childcare rebate fortnightly to parents, but, like so many of Labor’s promises, nothing has happened there. In reducing the childcare rebate they claimed that they were simply attacking ‘rich’ families—a three per cent who had far too much money. Middle-class welfare is one of their favourite mantras. We know that if you have a younger child in child care for more than two or three days per week, you very quickly hit that $7,500 or—what it was—the $7,700 cap and then you are in great strife if you are not earning more than the minimum wage or, indeed, the average wage in Australia.

Labor has taken away the $1,500 family day care start-up grant and the $5,000 start-up grant for remote family day care. This directly attacks the capacity of women to start up professional care in their homes for children, because they often need to modify their home and pay to have their household made appropriate for child care. Labor has refused to give any certainty to the part-time long day care centres in remote or small communities, like Darkan and Corrigin in Western Australia. They are now to receive only six months accreditation, because the minister thinks that since they are smaller and do not have enough children to be open seven days or five days week, they are at higher risk of closing. Hence they receive accreditation for just six months at a time. No-one can employ professional staff on that basis. One thing is for sure: these places will close without ongoing accreditation, or with the stop-start, piecemeal attention the minister is paying to them. They must have access to federal support through accreditation. Doesn’t Labor realise that small communities also need professional, accessible, affordable child care? In our drought stressed country, or our flood stressed country today, too many farms can only survive with off-farm income from either the mother or the father. Mothers and mothers-in-law, as I said before, do not live next door any more often in a remote or rural community than they do in suburbia.

There is also the issue of isolation of children, which is very often the case in remoter parts of Western Australia, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Queensland. Those children are now to be denied access to playgroups because occasional care funding has been slashed by $12.6 million over four years, a slashing by Labor. This means that a woman needing to have her child experience some playgroup activity or a woman needing to attend a medical appointment or to deal with some other emergency will no longer have that occasional care option in her community. In Victoria, for example, there were 97 of these occasional care programs, and they were 48 per cent funded by the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth have said: ‘No, we’re not interested. We’re not going to fund this anymore.’

Labor has also defunded the Active After-school Communities program, which served 150,000 children in 3,250 programs right across the country. Where are these families now to go for their after-school care for their children? Where else will these children have safe, active, interactive team-building activities after school? I do not think Labor knows; it has simply defunded them, but I also suspect that Labor does not care.

The Labor government said they would build 260 multipurpose childcare centres on school campuses to stop the need for the double drop-off. That promise went like the rest. They are now down to just funding 38, and we will see them if we are lucky, I would suggest.

We also have their shameful Paid Parental Leave scheme now on the table. It does not offer superannuation to those taking the leave. It is only paid at the minimum wage. There is a very strong likelihood that the majority of mothers will be better off staying on the baby bonus in terms of their financial support, but that denies them the special leave they need to recover from a pregnancy and to bond with their newborn. It is a shameful Paid Parental Leave scheme. Of course, we have committed to changing it to world best practice when we are in government.

Then there is the gender pay gap in Australia. It has been around for quite a while, but who would be surprised that the pay differences for men and women doing the same work or work of equal value have actually got bigger under Labor? Why? Because Labor has paid no attention to the workforce needs, particularly in the industry sectors where most women work. Labor has locked into the future age-old practices where women in hospitality, in tourism, in part-time work and in casual employment are now struggling even harder to get decent employment. The three-hour-minimum rule that has now been inflicted on a lot of sectors where women mostly work means that women in particular are being put off. Where before they enjoyed having a two-hour work stint either before or after their schoolchildren’s hours or perhaps at a time that they could fit in with their caring responsibilities, they no longer have those options. Take, for example, the milking work that women often did in my dairy sector. Women—and men—can no longer be employed in those sectors because it is not a three-hour shift; it is a two-hour shift, and those farmers cannot afford to pay someone for three hours when they have worked only two.

This is the sort of thing that Labor have done to this economy, and I think it is a disgrace and a shame when they get up, as they did in parliament yesterday, and ask us to celebrate the improvement of the economic circumstances of women under Labor. I thought that was the most extraordinary invitation for us to debate such a topic.

In the area of early childhood education, we had the promise from Labor of universal access for 15 hours of early childhood education with a qualified teacher in an accredited centre each week. The average Australian citizen would presume that ‘universal access’ meant free, mandated education and a place for every preschool-age child—in other words, a child in the year before they commence primary schooling. No, sadly it does not mean that at all. There are numbers of early childhood centres—often called kindergartens—in the state of Victoria, in the rural areas in particular, which have now closed because parents cannot afford the fees. Those parents, of course, are drought stressed or they are working in sectors—for example, the dairying or fruit-growing sectors—where they have been paid for too long below the cost of production.

Where those small towns have lost the capacity to fund their kindergartens, or early childhood education centres, have Labor marched up and said, ‘That’s okay; we’ll fund those places for those students; we’ll keep your centre open because we’ve promised universal access to every child in the year before they go to school’? No, Labor are not doing that. Labor have walked away. Universal access does not mean mandated, free, early childhood education for every child. It is a disgrace and it is a con, and everybody knows it.

Obviously there are so many families in Australia now who cannot wait until there is a change of government so that they can once again have their children experience the early childhood education they know they need if they are to have a flying start in their primary school days. Already, what we call in Victoria preparatory school grade teachers are telling me that in some places 30 per cent of their children have not had preschooling, so they begin way behind the eight ball. That is not fair to a four- or five-year-old, but that is what this government has ushered in as the experience of too many families who have been too financially stressed and cannot afford the preschool fees.

Let me turn to irrigated agriculture. I am, of course, the member for Murray and proud to be that. My area used to be called ‘the food bowl of Australia’. We have experienced nine or 10 years of drought now, but it is not the drought that is the problem for irrigated agricultural production or even dryland production in my electorate. The problem is federal government policy—policy which, if it were designed by madmen, could not have been worse in terms of the destruction of accessible or reliable water supply, or water security, for irrigated agriculture. And that is combined with the state Labor Party’s policies. They have piped the irrigation water supply out of the Murray-Darling Basin from the Goulburn River system to Melbourne, across the Great Dividing Range—where of course they need to use fossil fuel produced energy to do that pumping. They are taking 75 gigalitres of water out of the Goulburn River, which once served the food bowl. That water is going to a city which does not recycle water, which does not have stormwater harvesting and which is still wondering about its desalinisation works. Therefore we are now beggared in terms of our capacity to grow food sustainably and with security in the Murray and Goulburn valleys. We are seeing our dairy industry and our factories, close. We are seeing our fruit production contract because we do not have the water. Melbourne has options, but it was a cheap and politically easy option for the Brumby Labor government to join with the Rudd Labor government federally to raid our water supply.

How cruel to put over $3 billion on the table and say to my drought stressed farmers, ‘If you’re willing, sell your water.’ I am sorry; my farmers have never been willing because they know that selling their water is the same as selling their dairy cows, if they are in the dairy sector: you are selling your means of production. When you have sold your water, you have still remaining on your dried-off property things like a water delivery share, for which you have to pay thousands of dollars each year to the state owned Goulburn-Murray Water authority. That is a completely inefficient authority now. It has been put under the charge of the Northern Victoria Irrigation Renewal Project, whose mandate is to shut down and transfer 60 per cent of the water management to the main channels. That is code for: ‘Let’s take 60 per cent of the irrigation system out of future water-carrying capacity.’

What other country that has been able to feed itself would have such a policy of shutting down an irrigation system and doing it in such an ad hoc way that you have stranded assets right across your thousands of hectares? This was once a thriving economy dependent at the base on food production, moving through to food manufacturing, the transport sector, the food-marketing sector, innovation and research—all of that was there. It has now been destroyed by the Victorian state government, which is desperate to get out of the business of irrigation management but not aware of how to do it. It is simply waiting till farmers are forced to sell their water and so it can then say: ‘Well, you’ve sold two, three or four farms worth of water off that six-farm spur. It’s all over for you. Here’s a few thousand dollars. We’ll shut down your water spur. Why don’t you relax and look at the burrs out the window, look at the dust blowing and think to yourself that you’re in retirement?’

That is not the way we want to live in northern Victoria. We are proud to be food and fibre producers. We were the food bowl of Australia and we can still be that. But we need a government that understands the connection between the economy and water policy, that understands how efficient irrigation systems can run—like those at Coleambally or at Harvey in Western Australia. If state governments cannot manage irrigation systems they should get out of that business.

This, of course, was what was agreed by COAG back in 1994. Unfortunately, the Victorian government changed the Victorian state constitution in 2004-05, saying that only they, the state, could ever run irrigation water supply systems into the future. Don’t we all regret that! We have to come up with alternatives for northern Victoria, because it is not just that communities are being destroyed, lives are being lost and whole generations are seeing investment blow away. It is not just all of that that is breaking the hearts of communities and families in northern Victoria; it is the cost to the economy. Surely that must be a concern. Two point five million hectares of Australia, 0.5 per cent of arable land, is under irrigation. It produces 30 per cent of the farm gate value of agriculture, and 50 per cent of the economic value of agricultural production comes out of irrigated agriculture. This government seems more than happy to let it literally blow away.

Good farmers manage the environment very effectively. It is in their commercial interests to do so. We now have more water from our area given back to the environment through good farming practice than Penny Wong will ever see through simply trying to buy off drought stressed and bank pressed farmers. I beg Penny Wong to come and look carefully at what she and the Rudd Labor government have done to northern Victoria. She will be shocked and saddened, I am sure, but she needs to spend more time there than she does now, when she rushes past saying: ‘No, I won’t answer questions; I won’t talk to the media. Just show me a state public servant.’ We are disgusted and dismayed—and afraid. We are afraid about our future. Too much has gone into our more than 100 years of irrigated agriculture in northern Victoria to see it all blown away by a government that either does not care or does not know how to do things properly. It is time for the Rudd Labor government to move on so that the coalition can get back into business and literally save the country. (Time expired)