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Wednesday, 29 May 2013
Page: 4460

Mr CROOK (O'Connor) (15:44): I rise today to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2013-2014. I would like to not focus primarily on the recent Labor budget and their massive deficit but to express my disappointment about numerous failings of this government, in particular their inability to properly support the backbone and the financial engine room of this country—that being regional Australia and, in my case, regional Western Australia. I have consistently raised these issues in this place and plan on doing so until the end of my tenure which is not far away now.

First of all I would like to raise concerns I think are currently being felt by the Australian business sector, particularly the mining industry. My electorate of O'Connor, as I am sure many of you are aware, is one of the largest and probably one of the most diverse electorates across Australia and one I have been immensely proud to serve these past three years. As many commentators mentioned during the budget a fortnight ago, this was not the usual pre-election budget. This government has made cuts and changes all over the place, all in an effort to get Australia back on track and back in the black. However, the government has made cuts and changes that do not support ordinary Australians and that will not return benefits that this Labor government needs. My advice to the government and future governments is to invest in the regions, to invest in mining, agriculture and small businesses in regional Australia. Australia will prosper on the back of it. Businesses will produce a return and continue to do so, as will clearly happen in regional Australia and particularly regional Western Australia.

Secondly, I would like to raise the Regional Development Australia fund. I was disappointed but not surprised to see that this Labor budget did not include any extra money towards the Regional Development Australia Fund. I hate to repeat myself but as I have said time and time again in this place the comparison between Western Australia's Royalties for Regions program and the Regional Development Australia fund is laughable to say the least. My electorate however finally has seen some RDA funding under round 3 of the program. I certainly do welcome this $1.5 million investment in O'Connor.

One project which has just received some of this funding is the Shire of Esperance and the Esperance foreshore redevelopment project, a very worthy project that will greatly benefit the tourist town of Esperance and south-east coast of my electorate. The Shire of Esperance received $400,000 in round three and yet previously had received approximately $17 million from the Royalties for Regions fund. The difference is astonishing. I acknowledge this government is out of money. That has been clear for a long time now and this budget deficit has once again proved that. However, investing in the regions should still be a priority.

This leads me to another point which I have also raised on numerous occasions and that is the minimal return Western Australia receives from the GST. This is an issue very important to me and to my home state of Western Australia. Even though my federal WA colleagues from both sides of this House do not seem to believe that this is an important issue, their state colleagues do. To think that Western Australia's GST return could fall to 42 per cent is just unheard of and totally untenable. When the GST was structured I do not think anybody had any idea that the relativities would get to where they are currently falling to. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. It needs to be addressed as a matter of equity and if you want a state like Western Australia to continue to produce for the rest of the nation, which we are more than happy to do, the GST relativity must be addressed. I have acknowledged before in this place that it has not always been like this but there must be a cut-off relativity point so that Western Australia can guarantee their financial return so that they can continue to grow their state and our nation.

Last week, the West Australian reported that the WA treasury figures showed that almost $15 billion more in taxes leave WA each year. That $15 billion goes to the Commonwealth. The GST review panel has also previously acknowledged that it is possible that WA could be ruled out of receiving GST returns altogether. In my opinion, these figures and the suggestion that WA might not receive GST returns at all is simply untenable; it is almost unbelievable; and it is something that this parliament simply cannot allow to happen.

As some of you may be aware, come September I will not be returning to this place. Therefore, I cannot stress enough that my successor must take this issue on as a matter of priority.

Honourable member interjecting—

Mr CROOK: No, my predecessor did not. WA's economy, while strong and lucky to have the mining industry, has problems of its own, unique to WA, just like any other state across Australia. Excluding WA from GST returns will worsen the situation, and I again call on the WA members in this place to work on this issue as a matter of priority.

Another issue, just as important as the GST, that is facing regional Western Australia is the current GP shortage and the provision of health services, including caring for our aged. According to Rural Health West, there are currently 82 vacancies for GPs across WA. Local governments across my electorate and elsewhere in WA are still picking up the slack of what is a federal government responsibility. Providing financial incentives to keep a GP in town is not something that many metropolitan councils do, although there are some. Councils should simply not have to consider this. It is simply not equitable. I am, however, pleased that this government did not cut funding in this budget to rural health care. They did not increase funding to help those local governments, but I will accept the very small win and acknowledge that at least it was not a funding cut.

Along with this, I was also extremely disappointed to see the Living Longer Living Better legislation pass through the House earlier this week. This legislation does nothing to practically assist regional aged care service providers in my electorate. These complicated bills have been passed without sufficient time for us to consider the changes, and many of them will impact strongly on regional residential care facilities in my electorate. Rural and regional residential care facilities are being stretched to breaking point, and this new legislation only serves to increase the pressure.

The Gillard Labor government has ripped $1.2 billion from caring for the aged and has cunningly redirected it to wages and unionism in the form of the so-called Workforce Supplement payments. The conditions attached to the Workforce Supplement payments are so onerous that nobody in the country will be able to afford to take up these subsidies. As a result, these subsidies will go back into general revenue, leaving regional Australia out in the cold. As an example, a small aged care operation would have to spend an additional $4 on wages and associated costs for every $1 of subsidy money. This equates to a deep erosion in the quality of aged care throughout Australia, which will be felt most deeply in the country.

Given the unavailability of operating aged care facilities in regional Western Australia, it is no longer attractive for investors to enter this industry and the state will soon be falling behind on meeting demand for beds. This situation will only worsen as the population ages, and this legislation has just made a bad situation much worse. By offering small operators a Workforce Supplement payment with unviable conditions attached, the government has assured that small operators will not take up these funds. This will lead to a larger pot of funds for the bigger city providers, who will now be forced to negotiate enterprise bargaining agreements with the unions in order to be eligible for assistance. This government has put unionism and politics ahead of the care of our most vulnerable citizens—the aged. This Labor Gillard government has sacrificed and abandoned remote and rural aged care operators and their aged residents in favour of large city providers in order to serve the union agenda.

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to mention another section of O'Connor electorate struggling through the economic uncertainty—the farmers. Farmers across O'Connor electorate and WA more widely are really doing it tough at the moment. Subsequent bad years have put a lot of pressure on these farmers and unfortunately many will not be putting a crop in this season. I travelled my electorate during the last break visiting farming communities across the Wheatbelt and the south-east including the Ravensthorpe and Esperance regions. I also took trips deep into the eastern Wheatbelt, an area that is really struggling under the present economic climate. They are still waiting for rain as we speak.

At this time the government had just announced its farm finance proposal. The feedback I received was quite positive. I am pleased that this funding has been included in this budget. However, time is of the essence and this cannot be stressed enough. The window of opportunity to put a crop in has all but passed with many not having the finances to put a crop in at all.

I urge the minister responsible to work as closely as possible with the state government to ensure that this funding becomes available immediately. The WA government should not be left to burden the cost of administering this program, and I understand this is the fear of the state government. I hope Minister Ludwig alleviates these concerns as soon as possible so that these funds can be made available to those farmers that will take up the opportunity to at least put a crop in.

Mr McCormack: Do not hold your breath.

Mr CROOK: I thank the member for Riverina for his support in this because, clearly, it is going to be a major issue in the eastern Wheatbelt of Western Australia. I have heard some very heart-rending stories about where some of these farmers are going. I really am genuinely concerned about their mental wellbeing, about the wellbeing of their families and about the wellbeing and the life of some of these remote agricultural communities. Many of these outstanding regional communities are there on the back of what has been clearly an outstanding industry. I feel that we need to promote our agricultural industries to the fore. I would like to acknowledge the minister for making this money available because it has been well received. The urgency now is paramount. If it is not taken up by farmers within the next fortnight to three weeks, many will be in dire straits.

I also urge the government to release more information in relation to the Farm Finance including who will be eligible. There is still a doubt over who is going to receive these funds and whether there will be exit packages for people who do want to get off their land and allow other farmers to come in. What will the interest rates be for these concessional loans? I think all of these things need to be addressed as a matter of urgency and I urge the minister to liaise closely with all state governments to ensure that these procedures are put in place, so there clearly is a knowledge of where they are heading.

In closing I would like to again emphasise my extreme disappointment with this government and its inability to support regional Australia as I outlined in my speech previously. This parliament was one that was supposedly to focus on regional Australia by virtue of those that gave it power. In the early days it promised so much for regional Australia and it has failed us. I have a very simple comparison because I can compare it with the hung parliament in West Australia where the WA Nationals delivered the outstanding Royalties for Regions program, a program that is the envy of all other states. There is no doubt about that. They are the words of the federal Nationals leader, Warren Truss, not mine. He has seen first-hand the very distinctive regional policy that is the envy of all other states.

More importantly, the Western Australian government delivered stable government and that was done on the back of an outstanding policy, the Royalties for Regions policy. This parliament promised so much and has delivered so little for regional Australia. We have a minister saying that regional development funding can be spent in metropolitan areas because they are regions as well. I do not think there is one person in my electorate of O'Connor that considers the outer suburbs of Sydney a region or regional Australia. I strongly urge future governments that they have a strong focus on regional Australia. (Time expired)