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Thursday, 26 May 2011
Page: 4907

Mr COULTON (ParkesThe Nationals Chief Whip) (11:04): I rise to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2011-2012 and comment on the budget, the first budget under the prime ministership of Julia Gillard and the fourth handed down by Treasurer Wayne Swan. For Treasurer Swan this is four budgets, four deficits and no surpluses. The three biggest deficits in the history of the Commonwealth have been under the treasurership of Wayne Swan.

This budget was labelled as tough, but it did not go far enough to curb Labor's years of wasteful and reckless spending. The waste that this government has overseen goes right back to 2007. We have seen programs, which may have been started with the best of intentions, that have blown out and not delivered—the school halls, the pink batts and the $900 cheques that went out during the stimulus package. The school halls program has a legacy that is still playing out in my electorate. Indeed, because of some of the poor selection criteria for subcontractors, I have got tradesmen in my electorate who are still owed money under the BER program. I find that most distressing. They believed that when they were undertaking work that was overseen by the Commonwealth government their payment would be safe. At the moment we still have those issues playing out.

This government is now looking to implement free set-top boxes for pensioners. This has all the potential to go the same way as the pink batts and the school halls. It is a $308 million program and is valued at $400 per person. A couple of weeks ago I was in a large electrical retailer in Canberra and you could buy a new digital television for less than that. So I think that, once again, while the intention may have been honourable, I believe this is going to get lost in the delivery.

Some of the alarming figures to come out of this budget are that the deficit has soared to $49.4 billion and net government debt has climbed to $107 billion. That puts government borrowing at $135 million a day. The interesting part is that the mining tax was mentioned in this year's budget but the carbon tax, which is due to be implemented on the same day, was not. While the intention behind the carbon tax may be to help boost the government's bottom line, it will rip the heart and soul out of Australia, no more so than in the electorate that I represent. Before the previous incarnation of the carbon tax, the emissions trading scheme, Professor Garnaut's report indicated that regional Australia would have an economic downturn of 20 per cent under the implementation of an emissions trading scheme while the cities would have one of eight per cent. The question I would like to ask is: why is regional Australia being asked to pay a large part of the burden for this grand gesture to prove that Australia cares about the environment more than anyone else in the world? The issue here is not whether you believe that the climate is changing and not whether you believe that man's activity has anything to do with it; the issue here is whether what has been proposed is going to have any effect on the climate. It certainly will have an effect in my electorate, which relies a lot on fossil fuel. We have a high freight component for everything that comes and goes, for the goods that we need and for the produce that we produce. We have a high fuel component in the crops that we grow and in the mining sector. Due to the fact that we live in a harsh climate, we rely heavily on energy to keep ourselves cool in summer and warm in winter. I fear what the proposed increases to electricity prices are going to do to the people of my electorate and to the most vulnerable, the pensioners, in my electorate. The Meals on Wheels volunteers were telling me last winter, even before the implementation of the tax, just with the increase in electricity prices so far, that when they were delivering meals to pensioners they were finding many of them in bed at midday, not because they were unwell but because they were frightened to turn on the heater because they worried about the cost of electricity.

The other issue is that in some ways it could have the opposite effect. In one small town, Mendooran, the supermarket owner told me that he is paying between $6,000 and $7,000 a quarter for his electricity. If that increases by 20 or 30 per cent and he becomes unviable and cannot keep his doors open, the 400 residents of that village will have no choice but to travel the 70 kilometres each way to Dubbo to purchase their basic requirements. I would think that would have a much larger effect on emissions and a negative effect on the environment.

Likewise, the cement plant at Kandos will close within months of this carbon tax being implemented. We will still require cement as one of the basic products that we use for road building and housing construction. We use a lot of cement. That will now be imported from elsewhere in the world. So, while there will be still the same emissions, or possibly a few more if it is going to a Third World country that does not have the same technology we do, the 200 people in Kandos who rely on that plant for employment will no longer have a job.

So it is not without some reason that I have trepidation about a budget that has a carbon tax not included but foreshadowed and a mining tax that will also severely impact on the viability of my electorate of Parkes, where mining now is emerging as a large part of the economy. Indeed, I think that the numbers of people now who gain employment from mining are probably similar to those involved in agriculture—it has moved at such a rate. The mining tax also underpins a lot of the promises that have been made to regional Australia for spending, so a lot of these announcements, certainly in the forward estimates of this budget, coming to regional Australia are very much contingent on the mining tax. The one hand giveth and the other taketh away. Certainly that is a great concern to the people that I represent.

The other component of this budget is the $1.8 billion flood levy. The great irony of that is that a large part of the Parkes electorate was flooded, maybe not as spectacularly as in some areas of Queensland but certainly with just as much devastation. Fortunately we did not have the loss of life that the people in Queensland had. It was a different flood. We had areas from late November right through till March that were affected by this flooding. While I think that nearly $800 million has been paid out by the government under the Australian government disaster relief program, very little of that has been available to my electorate. I made representations to the Attorney-General and he seemed to understand the case. He put out a press release naming 13 local government areas in the Parkes electorate that would be eligible for the Australian government disaster relief payment. But when those people fronted at Centrelink they were refused. The fine print said that, for them to be affected, the water had to have come from Queensland. I want to know why the water from Queensland is more devastating than the water in the Macquarie Valley, the Cudgegong Valley, the Namoi Valley and indeed the Castlereagh.

We had people who were severely isolated. One lady in the village of Quambone has a severely disabled son who was stranded on an electric bed for two days while they had no power. I am not blaming the budget for that; that is what happens, but she has been refused the government disaster relief payment because the water that surrounded Quambone and took out the power did not come in from Queensland. Residents of Goodooga were isolated for a couple of months because of water that came from Queensland; but they were refused payment because they were not deemed 'isolated', because they could walk from house to house—but there are no shops in Goodooga. They were isolated from Lightning Ridge. They had to rely on flood boats and they had to pay high prices for produce that was brought it. I find that quite mean-spirited and it was devastating to these people.

But the real kicker with this is that, because they were not eligible for the disaster relief payment, they are not exempt from paying the flood levy. We are not talking huge numbers, but a considerable number of people in my electorate who were severely impacted by the flood, had considerable loss and inconvenience, are now paying a levy to other parts of Australia. I understand that in some suburbs of Brisbane people were eligible for that payment merely because the power was disconnected for a couple of days—and I am not talking about the areas that were impacted by floodwater—but that is an anomaly and something I have been having a battle about since the end of January. It has caused a great degree of resentment and frustration with my constituents.

The Prime Minister this week announced that an extra 21,000 university students receiving youth allowance. Once again, students in Mudgee and Dubbo, considered inner regional areas, have missed out. For some reason they were considered not isolated and have not been eligible for the independent youth allowance. Hopefully the inquiry that is being undertaken at the moment will rectify that.

Another thing that was mentioned in the budget was the inland rail. I welcome the announcement of $300 million, I think, for the start of acquisition for the corridor for the inland Melbourne to Brisbane rail. It is one of the key pieces of infrastructure that not only will be of benefit to the people of the Parkes electorate but I believe will be of benefit to Australia as a whole. Certainly, the cities of Brisbane and Melbourne will also gain from that. But it was a little concerning yesterday in Senate estimates when Australian Rail Track Corporation representatives said that their priority was still the coastal route from Melbourne to Brisbane through Sydney. I think we need clarification and direction from the minister to the ARTC that the inland rail is a priority and that we should get that project going as soon as possible.

Another thing in the budget that is a concern for the people in my electorate are the changes to the fringe benefits tax for work vehicles and the further attempts to implement the private health rebate changes which will force more people onto public hospital waiting lists and away from private practice.

A lot of money has been going to regional hospitals in this budget, but I am concerned though about Dubbo base hospital. Dubbo base hospital had an excellent proposal of $57 million. Prior to the state election, the now health minister, the then shadow health minister, Jillian Skinner, promised that New South Wales would increase that by $50 million, on top of the $57 million, to make a worthwhile project for Dubbo. But this government removed $50 million and allocated $7.1 million to the Dubbo hospital. I think that was very short-sighted. It would make perfect sense to do this hospital in one go rather than in lots of little stages. The people of Dubbo were certainly disappointed by that change of heart. Thank you.