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Wednesday, 13 February 2013
Page: 1318


Mr COULTON (ParkesThe Nationals Chief Whip) (13:21): I rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) and Appropriation Bill (No. 4). Financial management underpins everything that the federal government does. One of the frustrations as a member of this place is quite often the debate—the media and public attention get drawn into sideshows and other peripheral ideals and images when the role of the federal government is to provide an economic framework for other things to follow. We need to look after our defences, we need to take control of who can come and live in this country or visit this country and we need to look after those who struggle to care for themselves. Unfortunately we seem to have been sidetracked.

The financial situation of Australia is a disgrace; it is horrifying. When I speak to some of my friends and colleagues who were in this place at the end of the Keating-Hawke era, they remember the difficulty in repaying $96 billion in debt and the difficult decisions that were made. That figure is much, much higher now and it is going to be incredibly difficult to get the budget back in the black, and yet there is no clear pattern of infrastructure or other major reforms that we can show for that money.

There are two forms of debt. There is debt that is a useful tool. Before I came to this place I was a farmer and debt was one of the tools that I used. But it is one thing using debt to fund infrastructure or something of importance like defence spending and it is another thing to use it to fund the frivolous and mismanagement. Over the last five years the mismanagement of this place has been spoken about. The effect on an electorate like mine has been devastating. Much was said about the BER program. Every school in my electorate has a lovely sign out the front saying that this is brought to you by the federal government, but when this program becomes an issue the federal government runs a mile. I asked the minister in here about a very tragic circumstance for some of the contractors in my electorate, and he washed his hands of it. I will talk about Chris Catterall, a builder in Moree. He has been a builder all his life. He has a small business and he signed up to work on the BER program. He was assured that it was federal funding and everything would be fine but, due to the collapse of Reed Constructions, Chris is now $642,000 out of pocket and is given no comfort or indication of when he may be able to receive that funding. For a small operator like Chris, $642,000 is a lot of money, and I am sure he will not mind my saying that, at the age he is, it is going to affect his ability to retire when and how he was planning to.

Going back a few years earlier, Jarrod Kennedy, who is a metalworker in Dubbo, found out that due to the collapse of TCT Constructions he was not going to be paid for one of the jobs that he had done, a COLA in the Marra Creek school in western New South Wales. What did Jarrod do? He is an innovative young chap. He went out on a Sunday with a gang of men and a crane and he demolished the COLA and brought it home. It caused him a little grief for a while, but he felt that he had built it and was entitled to be paid for it. Those sorts of things are happening all the time.

The pink batts scheme: I have got a contractor in Dubbo who is out of pocket tens of thousands of dollars because of the difficulty in the paperwork and administering it. It may be things like because it is a rural property it does not have a street number, and so it is not accepted by the data methods that are used or there is doubling up on street numbers. There are administrative things like that and I believe the word has been put out to make it very difficult for these people to get their money. It is over budget and they have spent billions of dollars putting pink batts in and nearly as much money taking them out but there is collateral damage on the ground to small businesspeople who are having a go and thought they were safe because their were working for the government.

Take one of the larger decisions that was made, the carbon tax. In the last government, 2007-2010, I was asked once: 'What was my greatest achievement?' I said it would be part of the push that defeated the emissions trading scheme. Unfortunately, due to the change of mind of the Prime Minister at the last election, we ended up with the carbon tax. The week the carbon tax came in, the Kandos cement plant closed down—over 100 jobs; over 100 years of history producing cement in the Mudgee area. Because of the carbon tax, that plant is now uneconomical.

The great irony of this is that Mudgee has now become an area for wind farms, so on one side of Mudgee you have got the hills for the wind farms and, on the other side, you have got the coalmine. Because of policies that we have at the moment, the coal from Mudgee goes over to China, gets turned into wind farms, comes back and the cement that secures these wind towers to the hills, instead of being produced locally, comes through Sydney Heads on a ship from Asia and is trucked back to the midwest.

Other changes that this government has brought are the changes to the isolated child allowance. It is a great tragedy today that country kids have got 30 per cent less chance of gaining a tertiary education than their city counterparts. Due to protests and much of the lobbying done by this side of House, the government reinstated the allowance in a fashion but the means test means that many, many country people who live in urban areas are excluded. We have got people with two or three kids in towns like Dubbo, Mudgee, Inverell, Moree, Burke, Cobar and Warialda who are in the unenviable position of deciding which of their children should have a tertiary education and which of them should not. In the year 2013, I think every child in Australia should be entitled to proceed to the level of their ability and not be restricted because their parents cannot afford to send them to live away from home.

Regional development is another issue. I will acknowledge that in the last term of government I have had three projects in my electorate through the Regional Development Program. The towns that received this money—and I will acknowledge that Moree, Dubbo and Mudgee were pleased to get their projects up—were the only towns and the only councils that, due to the design of the program, were large enough to have the resources to actually put in an application. The application that Dubbo City Council put in for their regional athletics track cost, I think, in excess of $50,000. Smaller communities cannot spend that sort of money simply to put in a proposal. This goes to the fact that the minister's understanding of how regional areas work is clearly lacking. There are a whole heap of smaller communities that have had worthwhile projects—not million-dollar projects but ones where a couple of hundred thousand dollars would mean a lot to that community's ability to progress and move on. Up until this point, they have largely missed out. There is another round of the Regional Development Program coming out and we are hoping that some of these smaller communities might get a start there.

In relation to telecommunications, there has been much discussion in this place about the NBN; but what has not been discussed is the fact that there are still parts of Australia that have no mobile phone coverage, and so it does not matter that people talk about fast broadband speeds when you are excluded. With mobile phones now being the primary source of communication, to live in an area where you do not have mobile coverage is absolutely unthinkable. I will talk about the village of Goolma, which is on a busy crossroad, between three major towns: its entire valley is without mobile coverage. We have the issue now where emergency service messages are being delivered by mobile phone. People in such areas cannot get the call-out. I spoke to a rural fire service volunteer at Wellington who lives in an area with no mobile phone coverage. He did not get the call-out to a fire because he has no coverage.

This government raided the $2.7 billion that had been put aside for the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund; it is now gone. This is the pattern that we have been following—money that had been squirrelled away by the previous coalition government to fund ongoing infrastructure into the future has been raided. A lot of these failed programs have now become a future tax burden for our children and grandchildren. I do not think that they are going to be very impressed paying taxes in years to come for the insulation that went into their granddad's house that nearly burnt it down. This is the great tragedy of what is happening now.

The NBN is still years away from getting to my communities—if it ever does get there. The great irony is that Telstra saw Conroy coming from miles away. Most of my constituents gain their data through the Next G network—through 3G or 4G—which is not part of the NBN and never will be. We have here a proposal for the construction of a white elephant. The other misconception is that there is some sort of broadband desert out there. Most of my schools have fibre-optic cables connected to them. My hospitals have fibre-optic cables connected to them. I spoke to the principal of a large accounting firm in Dubbo on Saturday night who told me that they have very fast broadband. A lot of that is already there. The idea that the government somehow are the champions of broadband, and that nothing had happened before, is an absolute nonsense. If there is a change of government on 14 September, I look forward to getting some common sense and rationality into the broadband debate. The people of regional Australia know that they deserve to have fast broadband and mobile coverage, and we need to make sure that that happens.

Infrastructure, particularly in my part of the world, has not been a high priority for this government. We have spoken previously about the inland rail. If you want practical ways to reduce emissions in this country, taking the trucks off the Newell Highway and putting them on a train is a logical way of doing that. This has been spoken of for some time. The inland rail needs to happen. In the last heavy rainfall event that came down the east coast of Australia, we saw how Queensland became isolated freight-wise because of the reliance on transport up the east coast. An alternative, fast, efficient and cheap method of moving produce between Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane in an inland manner, and ultimately connecting through to Perth and Darwin through the inland port of Parkes, is something that is long overdue.

A lot could happen this year. But if on 14 September the Australian people do decide to go in a different direction—and I am certainly hoping that they do—it is going to be an enormous challenge for the coalition to clean up the mess that has been left and push Australia back in the right direction. (Time expired)

Sitting suspended from 13:37 to 15:30