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Tuesday, 22 May 2012
Page: 5186


Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (20:50): As we would all recognise, it is the time in the night for little children to be going to bed and we have just heard one of the great fairytales, told to us by the member for Kingston. It starts with this story that once upon a time there was this Treasurer who promised a surplus. No-one on this side of the chamber and certainly no-one from the broader Australian community actually believe a single word this Treasurer says when it comes to the word 'surplus'. Keep in mind, we are talking about a Treasurer who has delivered record deficits four years in a row. Even the Treasurer himself does not seem to believe he can deliver a surplus, because last year I remember speaking in the House and I challenged the Treasurer. I said: 'I'll bet you $1,000 that you will not deliver a surplus in the next financial year. I'll bet you $1,000 and I'll donate that to your favourite charity if you can actually deliver a surplus. Of course, if you can't deliver that surplus, you'll need to make a donation of $1,000 to my local surf lifesaving club.' I am afraid the Treasurer would not take the bet. He did not have the courage of his convictions, because this is a Treasurer who simply cannot be believed.

I want to raise several issues tonight in relation to the budget, particularly the impacts they will have on my community in Gippsland. My concern particularly relates to an aspect of the budget that the Treasurer cannot bear to name—that is, the carbon tax. Overall, I believe this is a disappointing budget for regional Australia, particularly for my electorate against the backdrop of the government's Contract for Closure scheme, part of its so-called clean energy future package. There is already a crisis of confidence in my electorate, particularly around the Latrobe Valley, and it is directly linked to the uncertainty that this government has created through its reckless decision to legislate for what is the world's biggest carbon tax. We have already seen job losses in the Latrobe Valley and there is a very real prospect of more to come. I know the government likes to use the high Australian dollar as a defence and the reason that these jobs are being lost. Of that assertion, I simply ask: why on earth would you make it harder? When we have a high Australian dollar, while there are difficult times facing many factories, some parts of the agricultural sector and certainly the power-generating sector, why make it tougher for Australian manufacturers to do business? Why make it harder for them to compete on world markets?

I believe that regional Australia already makes an amazing contribution to this nation. We heard the member for Maranoa speak previously about the great contribution that regional Australians make in their day-to-day lives. But they are desperate for a government to show real leadership on this particular issue. The carbon tax debate is followed very closely in regional communities, particularly in my community of Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley. As I have said to the House before, my community is at the absolutely pointy end of this debate. For them it is not some abstract argument. It is about their jobs. It is about the lives they lead today. It is their hope for the future, the opportunities that they can provide for their children in the future and the role that they can play in helping this great nation be even greater in the future. The fundamental problem that this government has relates to its carbon tax broken promise. This Prime Minister will simply not recover in the eyes of my community, because of that fundamental breach of trust. That is the simple fact of the matter.

Mr Sidebottom: They all voted on that, did they, Darren?

Mr CHESTER: No.

Mr Sidebottom: No, they didn't! That is the answer to the question.

Mr CHESTER: No, they did not vote because before the election the Prime Minister said there would no carbon tax. So you are right, Parliamentary Secretary, they did not vote on that because your Prime Minister promised no carbon tax. She ruled out a carbon tax and then she did a black flip.

Mr Sidebottom: No, they did not vote on that either, Darren, and you know it.

Mr CHESTER: That is what you will not admit.

Mr Sidebottom interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms Vamvakinou ): Order!

Mr CHESTER: You will not admit that.

Mr Sidebottom: You have got to be joking.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER: Order! The parliamentary secretary is defying the chair.

Mr CHESTER: I sat in the chamber today and I listened to the Treasurer say, 'We'll support the Australian workers every day of the week.' I am almost physically sick when I hear those mealy-mouthed assertions from a Treasurer and a Prime Minister, who simply refuse to stand up for blue-collar workers in my electorate. Those opposite can roll their eyes as much as they like. This government says it is governing in the interests of working people. But this government wants to shut down power stations in my electorate and that will result directly in more than 500 job losses, with flow-on effects to thousands more. There can be no denying that. The Contract for Closure policy is directly aimed at shutting down 2,000 megawatts coal-fired power stations and the most obvious targets are in the Latrobe Valley. I do not think that any member can deny that. This government wants to kick out power station workers—kick them out of their jobs—particularly in the Latrobe Valley, if this contract for closure scheme progresses in the way that the government wants it to progress, and it will devastate the Latrobe Valley.

I say to members opposite: the Latrobe Valley power station workers do not want the household assistance package; they do not want transition plans; they do not want these so-called promises of new green jobs—they want the jobs they have got today. They want to keep the security of the job they have already. They do not want it taken away from them by the government and its carbon tax. I think that it was appalling that the Treasurer in his budget speech could not even bring himself to address the words 'carbon tax', so it is no surprise at all that when it comes to actual assistance for regions affected by this policy, he was silent on that issue as well.

The great hypocrisy of this position is that right now throughout Australia we are mining coal, loading it on ships, sending it to China, India, Korea and Japan. We are sending millions and millions of tonnes every year and as far as I know when it gets to those destinations it is burnt in coal-fired power stations. If one minister can come to my region and explain to me why it is okay for a Chinese, Indian, Korean, and Japanese power station worker to have a job burning Australian coal, but it is not okay for a bloke from Morwell to have a job burning Australian coal—if one minister can come to my electorate and explain that to me—then perhaps I will see the light when it comes to this carbon tax policy. I have had a lot of ministers come to the Latrobe Valley. There have been a lot of visits. But there is not one cent on the table. As things stand today, there is not one cent on the table from all those ministerial visits when it comes to this issue of transitioning to the so-called 'carbon constrained future' that this government is imposing on the Latrobe Valley.

The classic example relates to the budget in terms of Latrobe Regional Hospital. Latrobe Regional Hospital had a major bid before the government in the lead-up to this budget process, and I acknowledge that it was not significant. It was $65 million. I have had the opportunity to visit the hospital with the board chair, Kellie O'Callaghan, and the state member, Russell Northe, and there is no doubt that the staff at Latrobe Regional Hospital are doing a great job in difficult circumstances. The facilities are in need of a desperate overhaul and I think that the staff and the board are to be congratulated for the work they are doing in very difficult circumstances.

I have spoken about this issue many times before in the House, and I raise it again tonight in the context that there was no funding for Latrobe Regional Hospital in the most recent budget. To the government's credit—and I have given the government credit for this previously—there have been previous funding allocations for significant health initiatives in the Gippsland region, particularly in the Latrobe Valley with the Gippsland Cancer Care Centre and Gippsland Rotary Centenary House. They are significant upgrades and are most welcome. But the LRH upgrade is the most urgent health issue facing the people of Gippsland and Latrobe Valley and, as far as I can read the comments of the ministers who have visited my region, when they talk about helping my region in the wake of the carbon tax and they talk about holistic development and issues to do with the health and education of the region, the proposed upgrade of the Latrobe Regional Hospital ticks a lot of the boxes concerning those issues the ministers have raised when they have been in my region in relation to regional development and the future health and prosperity of the region. So I encourage the federal government and ministers who have come back to my region, to put some money on the table and support these initiatives that they have so far only spoken about when they have been in Gippsland.

On a changed tack, because the member for Kingston raised the issue and many others have spoken on it as well, there is another budget related initiative that I want to discuss this evening, the so-called schoolkids bonus. I have a clipping here from Monday's Latrobe Valley Express newspaper. It is where the minister for families is all fired up about the coalition's decision to oppose the payment of $410 per child for each child in primary school and $820 per year for each child in high school. In her comments the minister attempts to take me to task. She calls on me to explain to local families why I support ripping vital payments out of their hands. There is a small problem with the minister's rhetoric, in that the government guillotined the debate. I did not get a chance to speak on the issue. Minister, to be fair, it is probably a bit unreasonable to be putting out press releases in a local member's electorate telling him to explain himself when it was this government that stopped members opposite from having the chance to have their say. Nevertheless, the minister makes a claim:

Darren Chester said 'no' to the new Schoolkids Bonus that gives 9450 local families with kids in school extra support to pay for things like uniforms, text books and excursions.

If I had had the chance to speak on this issue, I would have said to the minister that I have no problem with a schoolkids bonus if it means that the money will be spent on the kids themselves and their education needs. We already had a system in place called the education tax refund, and I do not think it was unreasonable that under that system the parents had to provide receipts to indicate that they had spent the money on education-related expenses—on things such as uniforms, textbooks and excursions, which the minister referred to. This is an important issue because we have had experience in Victoria of what is called the education maintenance allowance. Despite the previous speaker's suggestion that parents are angry with the coalition, I had two principals in my electorate raise their concern directly with me last week that, unlike the education maintenance allowance where there is a capacity for the money to be paid to the schools and managed by the schools to ensure it is used on education-related expenses, this money will just go straight to families and no responsibility is placed on them to make sure it is spent on education expenses.

To me, this is not a question of trust or of getting all holier than thou or anything like that. We know from bitter experience that some families will waste this money and that some families will not use it on education expenses. You would have to be naive or a fool to think otherwise. Some families are in a situation where they do not have a lot of disposable income because some of them have quite simply not been good at managing money in the past. We need to accept that that is a reality. Allowing funds like the education maintenance allowance, which applies in Victoria, to be paid directly to the school enforces a savings system that benefits children and their community. So the government's claims in relation to this issue simply do not hold water in light of common practice right now within states where schools have the capacity to take a sum of money and manage it for those families who have some difficulty in doing so.

Any responsible government is charged with achieving value for money, but that is not an issue for this government. I was fascinated to watch the ABC interview last week by Chris Uhlmann of the former Treasury boss, Ken Henry, because Mr Henry gave an insight into the global financial crisis and how things were managed, but he indicated that value for money was not his highest priority. Those on this side of the House have been saying that for a very long time. Mr Henry said:

… whether the money is in some sense wasted because there's overcharging or whatever, of course it's an important point but from a macroeconomic perspective it's very much second order, maybe even third order.

I am not an economist, and I respect Mr Henry's position. But, to the Australian populace and the Australian taxpayers, value for money is the bottom line. Australian taxpayers expect us in this place to deliver value for money for every one of their hard-earned dollars they send here. For the government to produce this budget and expect it to be believed is simply fanciful. As I said earlier, it is simply an evening fairytale being put forward by the Treasurer.

I finish on a positive note about the situation we find ourselves in. My community has been extraordinarily resilient. It has survived through fires, floods, droughts, and—heaven help us!—we will not have to survive through another term of a Gillard government. But, if the government will not help us, I urge my community to work together amongst ourselves and to help ourselves. In the next month I am sending a message out to Gippslanders about a 'shop locally' campaign to try to help sustain local jobs and help local businesses prosper. I am writing to everyone in my electorate and providing them with information on the importance of shopping locally because we face some difficult economic times in our region. The 'putting locals first' campaign that I have run over the course of my time in parliament will be ramped up over the next four weeks. We will encourage families to understand that it is the local small businesses who are the engine room of the Gippsland economy and that they deserve our support.

Any member from a regional area understands that it is the local small businesses—the mum-and-dad enterprises with perhaps a handful of staff—who provide the backbone of regional economies. It is those small businesses who sponsor local sporting clubs, who put up the prizes for the school awards nights, who look after the community groups and who provide training, new skills and opportunities for young people in the community. So the message I will be taking out to the people of Gippsland over the next month is that every dollar we spend at a local business helps to make sure that our economy remains strong and that, if we take a holiday in Gippsland and enjoy some of the great experiences that are available there, we are helping to keep jobs in our region and make sure that young people have a strong future in the Gippsland district.

In closing, I say I do have concerns about the budget. Primarily they relate to the No. 1 fact and the No. 1 concern in the broader community—that is that when it comes to money Labor simply cannot manage the budget, and that means that Australian taxpayers are going to be required to pay back this debt for generations to come.