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Wednesday, 4 December 2013
Page: 1614

Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (16:29): I very sincerely congratulate the member for Mallee and those who are here to support him. That was a very fine contribution. I listened carefully. He was a leading light in the Victorian Farmers Federation, a former farmer himself, and, as he indicated, a Nuffield scholar, and he comes to this place very well credentialed. I look forward to working with him on a bipartisan basis with respect to some of the issues, particularly in rural and regional Australia, that he raised. I was a little bit frightened for a while; I found myself agreeing with the member for Mallee most of the time. I can only come to the conclusion that he is a new breed of National with strong faith in the market, although qualified—I do not want to misrepresent him. It will be very interesting to see how he sets himself apart from some of the more senior members of the Nationals, such as Minister Joyce, as well as Senators McKenzie, Williams and Nash, who are up the back there. It is good to see them in the House. This will be the big test for the member for Mallee. I hope he will come with the opposition on some more sensible approaches to the market and do some things to give a real lift to rural and regional Australia, something that has been missing in this place—except of course for the last six years—for too long.

There is applause in the chamber. I am assuming that it is not necessarily for me, but I do—

The SPEAKER: I will just interrupt you for a moment, Member for Hunter. It is acceptable that we waive the rules of the House to allow applause for a new member's speech—but not after that.

Mr FITZGIBBON: I appreciate that you have given them some latitude, Madam Speaker. I am, I think, well qualified to say these things, because I have been in this place for almost 18 years, so I have been around to see a few maiden speeches. I have enjoyed the maiden speeches of all the new members—from both sides of the House. In a similar vein, I want to say that it is a great honour and privilege to have been elected to the House, representing the Hunter electorate, for the seventh time. I extend once again my sincere thanks to my electorate for giving me that ongoing opportunity and I recommit myself to using all of my energy and ability to do the best I can for my electorate.

There has been much said about the big difference between the 43rd Parliament and the 44th. Certainly it is and will be a different place. Hung parliaments tend, by their very nature, to be unruly, untidy and, on occasion—if not often—very chaotic. The 43rd Parliament was all of those things. No-one is better placed than I, having been Chief Government Whip for most of those three years, to fully appreciate that.

But it is going to be more than the strong majority of the government which will set apart this 44th Parliament from the 43rd. What will really set them apart is the transition from a can-do government, a government intent on reform, to a new government which is simply intent on keeping things just the way they are—or, more particularly, winding the clock back to the way they were prior to the 2007 election. This of course is the very essence of conservatism. Conservatives dislike change. In fact, in some cases, they hate change. Prime Minister Abbott—and I say this with the greatest respect—is conservative with a capital 'C'. The problem for conservatives is that, while they can do their best to hold back change in their own nation-state, they cannot do much to change progress and movement beyond our national borders. They cannot do much to control what is happening around the rest of the world.

Further, it is all right for conservatives to be satisfied with the world as it is. More specifically, I suggest it is all right for wealthier conservatives to be happy with the status quo. The problem with that is that not everyone is in a position to enjoy the status quo. The underprivileged in our society, working-class people, people who work excessively hard to make ends meet, are not always happy with the status quo. Certainly on the matter we discussed during question time today, people are not satisfied with the status quo in education. We are falling behind the rest of the world. The status quo is not good enough for those who aspire to a better life for their children—and that is the sort of Australia I want to see, a place of greater opportunity. As great a country as we are now and always have been, we still have too many underprivileged people, too much inequality and too big a gap between the haves and the have-nots. So we really should be about change, constantly working to make Australia a better place.

I am particularly grateful to the Statistician, who did some very detailed work, some time ago now, on how the government can best reduce that gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society. He identified the obvious mechanisms available to government. We have a progressive tax system which in itself redistributes wealth from the wealthy back to those who need it most. We have the transfer payment system, including pensions, unemployment benefits, childcare benefits and other things that give families a lift up. A less obvious mechanism is the use of what the Statistician described as non-cash benefits. What are non-cash benefits? Non-cash benefits include the provision of services to local communities—child care, for example. Hospitals are another good example, particularly as Australia has a public health system. These are the things the Statistician, albeit back in 1997, said were the mechanisms which did most in our economy to reduce that gap between the haves and have-nots. That is why I have always had a very strong interest as a member of this place in the inequality of services and the lack of provision of infrastructure in regional and rural Australia. That has always been a passion for me.

If we go back to the fine contribution of the member for Mallee, I agree with him absolutely on this point: more of the wealth that is generated in rural and regional Australia should be returned to rural and regional Australia. That was the whole principle behind the now hotly debated mining tax. I am happy for people to argue about the design of the tax and whether it should have raised more revenue or should not have raised any revenue, but if the government were really serious they would reshape the tax using their own formula. I invite them to put up the argument that the principle behind the mining tax was not sound. The principle was that when companies are making superprofits by extracting and exploiting natural resources owned by the people who live in rural and regional Australia, at least a fair share—I would argue even a greater share than that—should be returned to rural and regional Australia. That is exactly what the mining tax sought to do. So, again, fiddle with the design of the tax all you like, Prime Minister, but do not stand here and tell us that the principle underpinning that tax was one worthy of being challenged. It simply was not.

This is very important in electorates like mine. Mining has brought great wealth to the Hunter Valley, and we welcome it. People have enjoyed living standards they could not have dreamed of without mining, although I point out that it has been cyclical and many villages in my electorate have suffered from the arrival and then departure of coalmining. The benefits need to be spread over considerable periods. Also with mining come adverse impacts. There are environmental issues—water and air quality, for example; supermarket prices rise as they are faced with the higher wages that come with coalmining; roads become excessively congested; and child care and housing become more difficult to secure as demand outstrips supply. So mining is welcomed and fantastic for mining regions, but it does bring challenges and those challenges need to be recognised when people are thinking about how to fairly distribute the government royalties and taxes that come from the industry. I appeal to the Prime Minister to rethink his position—he can redesign the tax in his own name, but can he please give more thought to rural and regional Australia?

This is a theme that has been with us for all of the almost 18 years I have been here. The conservative parties in this country have never really been serious about regional development and intervening in regional communities. Prime Minister Chifley had a deep-seated interest in this area of policy; Robert Menzies came along and did nothing over 18 years or more. It took the Whitlam years for a government to become serious for the first time in decades about intervening in regional Australia, including decentralisation. Malcolm Fraser showed no interest whatsoever, and then of course the Hawke and Keating governments picked up the ball and ran with various programs. One which stands out in my mind, shepherded by then Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe, was in the area of housing. The current Prime Minister has a chance to break that record of conservative governments and for the first time get really serious about rural and regional Australia. I have to say that abolishing the House regional affairs committee is not a very good start at all. It sends all the wrong signals to regional Australia, as does the decision to drop the ball on making sure that, when mining profits are high, those profits are returned to their source.

This is not the only bad sign we have seen from this government in the short time it has been in office. The other bad sign is the decision to dishonour Regional Development Australia grants announced by the former Labor government. These grants came not from election promises or announcements but from decisions of government, decisions of cabinet, made by the cabinet prior to the calling of the election. There were serious processes. Councils, typically, but also other organisations, would put submissions to the local chapter of Regional Development Australia—in my case, the Hunter chapter—and they would prioritise the projects based on their merits. People with expertise in the region, serious business people, took a bipartisan approach to which projects would proceed and then made recommendations to a second committee, in Canberra, which would again vet these projects and prioritise them on their merits before making a recommendation to the minister of the day.

That was not pork barrelling or part of an election campaign; it was a serious and credible process producing outcomes of great merit. As a result of this decision I have lost a number of seriously important local projects, and I am going to read some into the Hansard. There is the levee project in Maitland, which is a redevelopment of the Heritage Mall and an opening up of that mall to the beautiful Hunter River. That is a very important project which should have been receiving $7 million from the Commonwealth. Then we have Mid-Western Regional Council, Kandos Loft improvements; Mid-Western Regional Council, Rylstone disabled access footpath; Muswellbrook Shire Council, Denman Recreational Area facilities; Muswellbrook council again, Olympic Park car park; Singleton Shire Council, the Singleton Regional Livestock Market upgrade; and Upper Hunter Shire Council, a project known as the White Park development. These are projects the councils have been struggling to fund for some time. They are much-needed projects in these local areas. They are projects that were going to be funded under a very robust and credible process, and the funding should be honoured by this government. It is not too late for the government to honour the funding for these projects.

It does not stop there. I am bordering on devastated by the decision not to honour the money allocated under the National Crime Prevention Fund. Many towns in my electorate—like most communities—have a great need for new facilities and new technologies to deal with antisocial behaviour, vandalism and the like, and we did very well under this program. There were very important projects like $99,000 to Maitland City Council for CCTV cameras in the Maitland CBD, another $86,000 to Maitland City Council for CCTV cameras in the Rutherford area of Maitland, and new fencing for Singleton Council at a local park called Howe Park. All are very, very meritorious projects put forward by local councils that have gone through a rigorous and robust process, but for some reason they have not been honoured by this government.

We have heard a lot pre-election about the budget emergency and the level of Australian government debt. Now that they are in office there does not appear to be any budget emergency, and they are raising the debt limit so that they can borrow more and spend more. I think people out there in the community are starting to wake up to the fact that, despite what they were told by the coalition throughout the election campaign, there is no government debt problem in Australia at all. In fact, compared with the rest of the world, we have one of the best positions in the world, and we have a AAA credit rating from each of the ratings agencies, something other countries around the globe would kill for.

Let's not say that debt or budget deficit inherited from the Labor government, given the proportionality of that debt and deficit when you look at countries around the world, is justification for abolishing CCTV cameras in Maitland. In a government budget approaching half a trillion dollars, did we really need to deny these local communities these important infrastructure projects? I go back to where I began and to what the Australian Statistician said about the tools available to government to reduce the gap between the haves and the have-nots in this country. Even more particularly in this case, I go back to the gap between services and infrastructure enjoyed by those living, working and playing in the cities and the dearth of availability for those of us who live in rural and regional Australia.

This takes me back to a theme I was talking about on an agricultural bill in this place earlier today. We need huge amounts of investment in the agricultural sector—huge amounts. The so-called dining boom, as I like to call it, can do for the Hunter Valley and other places what mining has done to the Hunter Valley. But we will need, on one estimate, $600 billion of investment by 2050 to achieve those aims. Obviously, given the population and the nature of our country, much of that investment will, by necessity, have to come from foreign sources. The GrainCorp decision is a poor one—not just the decision itself but the failure to explain the decision and the signal that sends to potential investors in Australian agriculture all around the world. I challenge the Treasurer, if he does nothing else, to explain fully to international investors the basis on which he made that decision so they can fully understand what the rules are when they are looking to invest in Australia. At the moment global capital is very competitive. They are looking around and I suspect they are saying that it is all too hard, we are not worth the investment, and it is not worth the effort.

Debate adjourned.