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Tuesday, 12 February 2013
Page: 1067

Mr SOMLYAY (Fairfax) (18:31): I wish the member for Griffith were here; he could tell me what those last few words spoken were! Appropriation bills are a good opportunity for members of parliament to address any issue—and you do not necessarily have to speak about the contents of the bill itself! So I am taking the opportunity today to talk about a number of issues that are very important to my electorate, which I have represented for almost 23 years now—and I think I have six months to go, probably! I will become an armchair expert, a blogger and all that, to drive all you people crazy, if you are back here!

Volunteering is a thing that I have come to really appreciate over the time that I have been a member of parliament, especially in my area. The Sunshine Coast in my electorate of Fairfax is a tourism area, it is a retirement area; the main industry is retirement, believe it or not: retirement! Retirees spend more money in retailing, shopping et cetera than any other sector of the community, so they are a very important part of my community. But as retirees get older, they need care. And because they have moved from interstate or from elsewhere in Queensland, they do not have family to look after them, and it falls upon volunteers to step in and carry out those little things that families normally provide for the elderly.

My electorate of Fairfax was named after Ruth Fairfax. She was the founding president of the Queensland Country Women's Association, a great organisation of volunteers. Recent national statistics reveal that more than six million Australians undertake some form of volunteer activity and that the most represented demographic is the 45 to 54 age group. By no means do I dispute these reassuring revelations about our country and our extraordinary capacity to give so selflessly of our time and energy. Simply, volunteering is in our veins and our communities are indeed richer for the diverse contributions people make.

However, my own observations in my electorate of Fairfax have prompted me to reflect on how local Sunshine Coast volunteers may or may not match this demographic profile. During these 23 years I have been to countless meetings—AGMs and events and with community based and not-for-profit organisations across the entire Sunshine Coast. Looking back to 1990, my first year as a federal member, I have wonderful memories of walking into rooms and halls throughout the region and meeting volunteers, many of whom were associated with those organisations well before my political arrival. Now they still seem to be there; they have been there for the last 20 years—and they are getting old. And I suspect they will be there long after my political departure, because today, more than two decades later, when I am invited to these same events I see the same people still there, and I see the same people at different events.

If I go to a Red Cross meeting and then I go to a CWA meeting, I see many of the same faces. There is a brigade of volunteers who just do nothing else. It is not that I am tired of seeing the same faces of those wonderful volunteers—quite the contrary—but I am thinking that they must be exhausted from their many years of dedicated service. It is volunteer fatigue of a different kind.

We know Australia has an ageing population, and my experiences on the Sunshine Coast confirm that mature members of the community are generously represented in the volunteering ranks, and that is not a bad thing. However what causes me concern is the likelihood that these volunteers are obliged to continue the good work because there is simply no-one to take their place. Would their departure leave unfillable gaps? Would organisations with proud traditions, such as I mentioned, the CWA, cease to exist? I hope not. The individual contributions of these organisations are part of the social fabric of our communities. Let us not lose them through unintended neglect.

So how can we foster the sustainability of our volunteer based community groups? How can we 'succession plan' for our volunteers into the future? Does government have a role? I believe so. In my small way every month when the Electoral Commission sends me a list of new constituents in my electorate, I invite them if they are new to the area to join volunteer groups and give a bit back to the community. That is one way of recruiting.

The collective contributions of volunteers are well documented by the ABS. I know through the ABS reports that Australians share extraordinary amounts of their time going on volunteer courses. It is also estimated that the volunteers provide billions of dollars of unpaid labour—billions. No level of government—state, Commonwealth or local—could ever hope to pay or to compensate for the work that volunteers carry out.

We can acknowledge this generosity and encourage even greater participation by simple things like tax incentives and making sure that it does not cost people too much money to be volunteers. The cost-of-living pressures that people have at the moment are acting as a disincentive for volunteers to volunteer. Volunteers have been building the social capital of our community for generations and I think it is about time we thought about how we can in some way repay the favour. It may be the lifeline that some organisations need.

The other issue that I want to raise is, of all things, coal seam gas. Australia has an abundance of natural gas supplies with reserves found throughout our continent. For millions of years these gases have been forming under our country's vast tracts of earth but it has only been in the last hundred years that we have tapped into this resource for commercial and domestic applications.

In very recent times Australia's gas industry and more specifically coal seam gas exploration projects have surfaced publicly, becoming the subject of much political, social and environmental debate and scrutiny. These are issues within our community which are divisive and which do polarise opinions. It is certainly in Australia's best interests, both in the short and longer term, to focus on achieving the right outcomes.

But let us not lose sight of some very simple facts. Natural gas is generally recognised as a clean, safe, convenient form of fuel, an alternative to electricity, the other energy elephant in the public debate. As a nation, we are prolific at producing and exporting this gas, but do we really maximise this resource domestically to our international advantage? I ask then: why are we losing the argument about coal seam gas in the court of public opinion? I do know why. It is because the general public hear the negative arguments about fracking and the effect on aquifers and other environmental concerns. They see farmers and others protesting.

Mr and Mrs Average say, 'What's in it for me?' They see no positives for themselves in this great natural resource. Really, this is a great opportunity. We should see this as an opportunity. The opportunity is there for a national project at least as important as the Snowy Mountains scheme of the early 1950s and 1960s. It will not be impossible for the NBN to deliver optic fibre to every home and every business. Why don't we roll out gas lines at the same time so that Australia can reap the benefits domestically that we are exporting to China, Korea and Japan?

We are ambitiously promising to lay out these fibre optic cables across the length and breadth of the country as part of making our indelible mark in the new world of cybercommunications. As part of this undertaking, it seems pragmatic to me to simultaneously install these gas lines to our homes and businesses with energy for tomorrow, potentially infinitely. It is a real pipeline for our future. Without energy there is no NBN. If we take this infrastructure leap of faith now, we are providing a valuable resource for our population that has ability over time to reduce domestic energy costs and to lower the cost of living for all Australians. I do not know anyone who does not want cheap, more convenient and safe power sources. To make our business and industry more competitive in global markets by reducing the current burden of high energy costs presently through our export mechanisms for gas, we are making our trading partners more competitive.

Currently, Australians have no or little affinity with the natural gas industry because as consumers we have come to rely on other fuel sources because of its unavailability and its price, and because of taxes. Australians should be given access to more economic alternatives. We have to prepare better for the future and investment in the domestic application of natural gas is equally as prudent as delivering on our export aspirations. Wider mainstream use of natural gas brings other advantages in terms of opening up greater research and development into gas exploration and safe extraction. Collectively, let us choose to be the guardians of Australia's ample natural gas business. We have an obligation to the current and future generations, so let us change our energy destiny. Other countries have done that. If you look at Norway and the oil rich countries, they have all provided access to these low-cost energy sources for their domestic consumption. Australia should do the same.

There is one word that really irks me and that is the word 'branding'. I hear the word 'branding' regularly. There is the Labor brand, the Liberal brand. It reminds me of a story I want to tell the parliament that I heard some years ago. There was a board meeting in this pet food company in New York and they sat through the late hours of the night and the early hours of the morning because the sales of their cans of dog food had fallen dramatically. They were there at three o'clock in the morning when the cleaners turned up to work. The cleaner knocked on the door and came in. They had all these things up on the board and they thought they would market-test the branding on the cleaner. They said to her: 'What do you think of the branding? What's the problem?' She said: 'It's not the branding. The dogs don't like the dog food. The dogs don't like what's in the tin.'

Politics is not about branding. I do not want to be branded as a 'Liberal' and therefore have an identikit image. I am an individual. I am a person. Politics is about people. It is the people of a political party who are important, and their performance, and not the 'brand', in the terminology that the advertising gurus would have us use. I wanted to say a few more things but I will save them for another day.