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Wednesday, 1 June 2011
Page: 5642


Mr CROOK (O'Connor) (10:57): This being my first budget as the federal member for O'Connor, I must say that I receive it with very mixed emotions. This government has made much of the expected surplus in 2013, but this surplus is based on very thin margins and on legislation that the parliament is yet to see. It is also based on the premise that state governments must do as the federal government wants, which, as we all know, is not likely to happen—and I will talk more of that later.

I welcome the bipartisan support that this place has given to mental health and the increased funding that it has received in this budget. With around one in four people being affected by mental health issues, the allocation of $1.5 billion over the next five years is very welcome. Of this, $491 million is allocated to children, teens and young adults for 30 additional headspace centres and 12 early psychosis prevention and intervention centres across Australia. Having recently visited the headspace centre in Albany, I now have a far greater appreciation of the work they do. They are a tremendous asset to Albany and the Great Southern. I certainly hope to see a number of these headspace centres located in regional Western Australia and specifically in the electorate of O'Connor.

The only real concern is that the bulk of this money will be spent in the out years, not in the short term. If my visit to the Albany headspace centre taught me anything, it is that a timely, discreet and professional response to the issues that are here and now is critical. The window to address mental health issues can sometimes be very minute, and adequate resources are needed urgently. It is, however, disappointing that GP mental health funding is to be reduced, because in many cases these are the people at the front line—they are the first point of contact and sometimes the difference between some people's receiving urgent care and not receiving it.

I also welcome the $1.8 billion over six years from the Health and Hospitals Fund to support the development of health infrastructure in regional Australia. As welcome as this is, one cannot help but question, firstly, whether it will be enough and, secondly, what the value of these facilities will be if they are not staffed by well trained health professionals. Not enough is being done to address the gross shortage of doctors in regional Australia, particularly Western Australia. Country local governments across my electorate are literally forking out hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to provide GPs to their communities. One shire is putting up over $900,000 worth of incentives to retain a GP in their community. To put that in context, this investment equates to around 15 per cent of the total expenditure of this local government.

I would like to take this opportunity to mention the state government's announcement of $565 million to substantially reform and improve access to health care for residents of the southern inland of Western Australia. The southern inland health initiative is the centrepiece of the state government's spending on health in 2011 and 2012 and is funded under the Liberal-National government's very successful Royalties for Regions program. This package, to be funded from July 2011, includes $240 million of investment in the health workforce and provision of health services over four years and includes $325 million in capital works over five years. This initiative will fund an equivalent of 44 extra doctors to secure ED services and GP services across eight districts. The most unfortunate thing about the Western Australian government committing to this initiative is simply that they should not have to be doing this.

This is the first budget where we have actually seen a real indication of the much talked about mining tax, or mineral resource rent tax, and where this revenue might be spent. There has been much talk of the windfall that regional Australia will see from this tax. The first attempt is disappointing, to say the very least. Any return to regional Australia from the mining tax is via the Regional Infrastructure Fund. The Regional Infrastructure Fund is a $6 billion fund over 11 years and, according to the budget papers, is 'reinvesting the proceeds of the resource boom in mining communities'. $960 million has been allocated in this budget and the biggest single project, worth $480 million or 52 per cent of that, is a metropolitan project, Gateway WA, which is for the upgrade of Tonkin and Leach highways as well as the freeway. I fail to see how this is reinvesting in mining communities.

There has been much criticism, particularly from the Treasurer, about the Western Australian government's decision to raise royalties on their—and I stress their—iron ore. It is totally unfair of this government to assume that no states will alter their budgets or financial management practices just so the Treasurer can meet his surplus promise. At least 25 per cent of the royalties that the Western Australian government imposes are guaranteed to be delivered back to regional Western Australia via the Royalties for Regions fund, a fund that really does mean regional and is not just tokenism. Western Australia will be the main source of the mining tax revenue for this government and there is no better time than the present for this government to make a fair dinkum investment in mining communities and match the Royalties for Regions funding.

The mining industry is planning to invest $76 billion in 2011 and 2012. If this government wants to reap the rewards of the mining industry by taxing it, the very least it could do is support infrastructure in those regional and mining communities that are delivering this dividend. Both the carbon and mining taxes are set to test, unnecessarily in my view, Australia's competitiveness in the global economy. I have concern for the impact on small to medium business and in turn jobs in Australia if we go down the path of taxing them out of existence in comparison to their global competitors.

On a more positive note, I welcome the extension for an additional year of the drought pilot program that has been running in conjunction with the Western Australian state government. Over the last two years many areas of Western Australia have experienced one of the driest seasons in recorded history. This has had a devastating impact on many of our regional communities, families and businesses who depend heavily on the agricultural sector. Last year the state and federal governments launched a drought pilot program to assist those farmers and families doing it tough through the drought.

This program has provided vital assistance to 67 local governments across WA, allowing farmers in these areas to access a range of support services including Centrelink, financial counselling services and strategic farm management workshops. More than 400 farming businesses and 300 families have benefited from these measures. As indicated in the budget, the federal government and the Western Australian state government will commit a combined $55 million to expand the drought pilot program significantly for the next 12 months. This commitment has effectively doubled the scope of the program and will allow the drought pilot program to be expanded into the south-west region covering a total of 130 local governments. The previous support services will still remain available, including farm business grants of up to $30,000 to help farmers better manage and prepare for future challenges and Farm Exit Support grants of up to $170,000 to support farmers who decide to sell their farm to cover relocation and retraining expenses. The drought pilot program is a very good program for regional WA and I am very pleased to see this program expanded into the south-west region. Many WA farmers have been suffering under the worst seasons ever recorded and it will be reassuring for them to know that their pain has been recognised by the federal government in this budget.

I would like to thank the federal government and the WA state government for ensuring this program is continued, and I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of the WA Minister for Agriculture and Food, the Hon. Terry Redman, for his hard work in ensuring this program continues to assist our primary producers and our regional communities during the dry season. That said, nothing can replace rain and it is slightly reassuring that there was some rain through the wheat belt of Western Australia on Monday night which will no doubt boost the morale of farmers and small businesses that support these communities. We must do all we can to assist our farming communities through tough times like the one that they are currently working their way through.

Education, particularly regional education, has been highlighted in this parliament, as have the inequities of youth allowance. Motions in both the House of Representatives and the Senate have supported a major review of youth allowance. Access to university and higher education continues to be a major issue for families living in the electorate of O'Connor and across regional WA. Due to the tyranny of distance, many students from regional areas have no choice but to leave the family home and relocate to Perth to attend university. This relocation to study is a major financial concern for many regional families who struggle to jump through the necessary hoops required to gain access to youth allowance.

The current youth allowance system as it stands does not afford regional families any flexibility when applying for the payment. The youth allowance system operates on a one-size-fits-all basis and leaves regional families at a major disadvantage compared to their metropolitan counterparts. I have heard numerous stories over the past few months of parents and students who have gone to great lengths to access higher education in the city. Some families choose to relocate to the city, and many students who wish to access university instead seek other career paths as they do not want to feel like they are any burden to their families. If this government is serious about creating sustainable and resilient regional communities, it is vitally important that we remove the barriers to higher education that are disadvantaging so many of our young people.

According to the Australian Council for Educational Research, in the seven years after leaving school, close to half of metropolitan students gain a university or TAFE degree, while only a third of regional students gain a qualification in that time. Many families across regional WA, including my own, are anxious to see the results of the federal government's review into youth allowance which is expected to report on 1 July. This review must deliver a fairer outcome for the thousands of regional students who are struggling to sustain themselves financially while living away from home; unsupported by the federal government. This review must call for greater flexibility for regional students and remove barriers such as the 18-month waiting period which forces students into employment while they study and in many cases takes them out of the education pathway forever. I welcome this review and look forward to seeing the government deliver better outcomes for our regional students.

Many of my constituents have contacted me with their concerns around the mining and carbon taxes. I have listened to their concerns about what this will mean to their families, their businesses and their livelihoods, and I will continue to do so.

I might now make a brief statement finally on the opposition's proposed amendment to this motion. I am not beholden to this government and I have no agreement to take any particular position on this matter. I am also cognisant of the constitutional risks to the institution of parliament when the opposition moves effectively to block supply, which is the basis on which government business and administration has continuing security. That said, and as the House has just heard, I have made it very clear that I have profound objections to a number of measures within the budget. I have just made that position clear in respect of the proposed mining and carbon taxes. I also believe that in processes such as raising borrowing limits the government should be accountable to the parliament. I finish today where I started, with mixed emotions surrounding the benefits for regional Australia and my electorate from this budget.