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Monday, 23 May 2011
Page: 4107

Dr STONE (Murray) (19:02): I rise to speak in the debate on the 2011 appropriation bills. It is breathtaking that the Labor government has performed so true to form. They got their hands on the steering wheel of government and in record time have driven us into debt and deficit. Yes, we all know about the global financial crisis, but it hardly touched us in comparison to other developed countries because of our strongly regulated banking sector. We did not have all those dodgy debts. A legacy of the Liberal government is our strongly regulated banking sector. And, of course, we have the ongoing strong performance of China, our major customer, which continues to grow on the back of our country's natural resource bounty.

We have the best terms of trade on record. The Rudd-Gillard government inherited a surplus of over $20 billion but it has been squandered. The budget was only a few days ago, although it feels like a lifetime ago. When we were listening to the budget I looked around at my colleagues and, instead of seeing them triumphant at the thought that the public would not like it and would swing even further towards us, I could see the despair and massive disappointment on the faces of my rural and regional colleagues. They realised it was going to be another two years before we could set the record straight and once again put to proper use in a magnificent country all those taxes, excise and customs payments made to the Treasury of Australia.

It is understandable that the public response to this budget was disbelief in some quarters, great despair in others, and a strong sense of: 'Bring on those next two years, we need a change of government.' Who can forget the stimulus package with $900 payments to the living, the dead and some lucky people in New Zealand? Who can forget the pink batts debacle where installers lost their lives and house fires were commonplace? Now that we are in winter, the elderly, especially in my area, are still discovering that the insulation that the government paid for does not in fact exist over most of the ceilings in their house—it was a shonky deal from start to finish—and they are still nervous and distressed that there will be fires in their ceilings.

But there is an extra $111 million in this budget to try and do more to mop up and secure the houses that had pink batts put in them. Imagine how we could spent that money. The whole pink batts debacle cost the nation more than $2.4 billion. Imagine how many rural students could have been supported in their living away from home study costs with a share of those millions or billions. Instead we have seen a massive drop in students even applying for university places in the so-called inner regional areas, which in the case of southern Australia extends from the outskirts of Melbourne to Deniliquin. What an absurd way to divide the country.

The government acknowledges that we have a massive skills deficit in regional Australia. With this budget, we were told to be cheerful because they are going to boost the regional skilled migration scheme by 6,000 people or perhaps more. But, at the same time, they have taken away opportunities and chances for university study for year 12 graduates who could have been that next generation of skilled people. How absurd, how short-sighted and how cruel. There are a lot of families in my electorate who are yet to have the first member of their family attend university. The hopes of those families are now dashed for another generation—or at least until we get back into government.

Rural areas typically do not have courses like medicine, engineering, science, law, architecture, economics and languages. It is not a case of going to your local TAFE or campus of a university, because those courses are not there. The list of courses that are missing from rural Australia goes on and on. How much did this government put into more regional university courses, places and campuses? Not very much at all. So what has happened? If you are in the so-called inner region—Labor's inane boundary delineation—and you earn a couple of salaries of, say, $70,000 and $30,000, or two incomes of $50,000, you are, Labor has told us, a rich family and you do not deserve to have support. We are told that middle-class welfare, first and foremost, was the target of this budget. Well, for families in the inner region earning $100,000—part of the Murray electorate—their sons and daughters now find it impossible to go to university and study away from home because it costs about $20,000. If the income of your family is only $100,000 gross and there is more than one child—there are perhaps two or three who want to go to university or who are finishing secondary school, which is expensive too—then you will have to give up on the dream of your sons or daughters attending university.

The way the rules have been changed for independent youth allowance are so impossible and improbable that it is impossible for students to get to university now via the coalition's independent youth allowance scheme. I have to tell students who come to me begging for a change: 'I am sorry; the regional Independents in the House of Representatives failed to support the amendment that came through from the Senate, which would have fixed this. So we're going to have to wait, perhaps for another two years, until the government changes and we can do right by Australia's next generation of country students who have the capacity to go to uni.' What a cruel, terrible thing for a family to have to contemplate—their sons and daughters have the marks to go to university but they just cannot afford it.

Interestingly, I went to an Independent Retirees meeting in Shepparton last week. Usually, the Independent Retirees concerns are about superannuation, interest rates and the cost of utilities. Guess what the concern of the independent retirees of Shepparton was. It was a big group—there were about 60 of them—and their concern was the inability of their grandchildren to be able to afford to go to university due to the impacts of Labor's independent youth allowance scheme. That is what my independent retirees were so sad about. They had, for all their lives, anticipated that their grandchildren would be able to go to university with government support. Now they see their most earnest desires and wishes thwarted. I think that is tragic. It is also unforgiveable.

The government, as I said, has killed off the next generation of skilled workers and professionals from rural Australia, and they stand condemned for it. It is not that every cent in this budget or the previous two budgets has been sensibly and carefully spent. Let us think about Grocery Watch, Fuel Watch, Cash for Clunkers and the My School website. It just goes on and on. This year's Labor budget has locked in at least $4,700 of debt for every Australian man, woman and child. We will have to pay at least $18 million a day of interest payments on this debt. And it will grow; we know that—this is a Labor government, after all—and we have to assume most of these payments will go offshore.

I have mentioned the pink batts and the other obscenities like Grocery Watch and Fuel Watch but I think the My School website is going to stand out in the annuls of history as one of the most destructive things that was ever done in Australia to our excellent education and to our teachers' capacity to do what they need to do in schools. I am talking in particular about NAPLAN. We have subverted the teaching of our grades 3, 5 7 and 9. In my electorate I have had reports from parents that in composite grades 2-3 or 3-4 a whole half year is spent teaching the grade 3 NAPLAN. How tragic for those families that their kids are not being taught a full curriculum. The kids are being focused on the NAPLAN. Why?—because it is published on the websites as a name-and-shame exercise.

In my electorate I only had two schools that were listed as above satisfactory. The rest were unsatisfactory. Are my schools all so terrible? No, my schools are in very low socio-economic status communities. We have just gone through seven years of drought and then a flood. We have a very large population of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. The students from those areas have only been in Australia for one, two or three years but there are no criteria in the NAPLAN results or in the My School website that allow for this very challenged school population. We have a lot of Indigenous students too; there is some compensation or consideration of their performance in schools.

Why is it that a government would produce a scheme like this—'name and shame'; let's look up the website—and they think it is succeeding when there are hundreds of thousands of hits? It does not then look at the results and pump into the schools that appear not to have made the grade appropriate funding for extra support for specialist teachers, aides specialising in English language needs or special additional teaching capital. No, that has not happened. All we have is the naming and shaming. I am dreading the next round. I know that in the schools in my electorate the teaching is often superb but the families are often extraordinarily challenged. We have schools where every child comes on a bus so you cannot have after-school activities. I was in one school last week—Lockington Primary School—that had over 150 dead computers. When I say 'dead' I mean that they are seven or eight years old and they do not work. Those computers are lying in corners gathering dust—and probably mice and redbacks—right now. There are only about five working computers of modern vintage in that school of over 100 students. And that school is supposed to be competing, eyeball to eyeball, with schools which are well endowed and have modern computers, or at least computers that work. That is the sort of thing that my schools are dealing with, and they are not being supported. I think that is disgraceful; in fact, it is disgusting.

And there has been no extra money in the budget for biosecurity. Is that why in the apple and pear fire blight interim risk assessment protocol that has just come through, the New Zealand farmers are not required to do anything on top of their normal picking and packing process under which their apples go to their local domestic market? Not a single different or additional protocol or process is required for those fresh apples to leave their fire blight infested and infected orchards, to be put into a container and come across to Australia, where Coles and Woolworths will choof them up to the apple-growing areas or, more importantly, the pear-growing areas of Australia, where the bacteria, I have no doubt, will be released to our currently disease-free orchards.

In my area we grow over 80 per cent of Australia's pears. You can imagine what my growers are thinking. It is not just apple and pear fire blight bacterial disease that will come in on the fresh fruit; there are other pests that we know will piggyback on those fresh apples, and not a single additional protocol is being required. It would appear, too, that no Australian biosecurity staff will be involved in the New Zealand exercise. In other words, it is the no-frills, cheap-and-nasty exercise of just bringing it on in. Why?—because the Prime Minister said in her speech in the New Zealand parliament the other day, 'Oops! Sorry, we've kept your apples out too long, really. We didn't mean to. Bring them on in; we don't care anymore.' She got a standing ovation. There is no real mystery about why: when I was in New Zealand just a week or 10 days after that they were still gobsmacked that a prime minister would suggest that it was only market issues or commercial issues that had kept the apples out of Australia for all those years, given they have that disease and we do not. What an extraordinary thing for our Prime Minister to say in their parliament!

Of course, New Zealand is famous for its kiwi fruit. They have now got a bacterial canker, which they got very quickly from Italy. Italy's commercial kiwi fruit orchards are now devastated by a bacterial canker. New Zealand picked it up almost immediately, and guess what—our biosecurity and quarantine services are still allowing fresh kiwi fruit into Australia from Italy and New Zealand. They have said, 'Oops! Better not bring any plant material—that could be a bit dodgy—or, perhaps, pollen. We'll think about that.' We are being exposed to enormous to risk via a scaled down Biosecurity Australia, which is told, 'No more money—just get smarter.' Biosecurity has not been too smart lately, and I cannot imagine what they are going to do other than continue to leave us exposed to diseases in our country, where we do not even have the legally available streptomycin that in New Zealand they saturate their apples in before putting it into the domestic market.

I could go on declaiming and despairing about the lack of research and development money for rural and regional Australia, for agribusiness enterprise and for the Bureau of Meteorology for telemetry. We were flooded out in my part of the world. We lost $2.2 billion worth of my farmers' livestock and equipment because there were no warnings with no working telemetries in the rivers, the regulated streams. The Bureau of Met needed more money to provide those. Guess what—no more money for the Bureau of Met. As far as future floods go, we will just have to keep the old fingers crossed because, again, this government does not seem to connect the dots.

This government does not seem to understand what needs to happen in this country. They do not care about future generations who will live beyond their own electorates. That is a shocking disgrace in a parliamentary democracy. I am afraid we might have two years before the next election. A lot of people in my electorate simply cannot wait that long.