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Monday, 9 May 1994
Page: 470

Senator TIERNEY (7.36 p.m.) —Last Wednesday the government brought down a document called Working Nation—its white paper on how to solve the problems of unemployment in this country. This was supposed to be another of Paul Keating's great policy initiatives but, in reality, it continues in the long line of failed policies in the area of unemployment over the last 11 years of this government. When we recall those particular initiatives such as One Nation, all the May economic statements and all the budgets, we find that they have failed to deliver anything like a proper employment level in this country. Yet the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) says that this is the one that is the panacea, this is the one that by the year 2000 will reduce unemployment in this country by five per cent. It will have to work a lot better than the previous ones.

  I want to focus on one aspect of that white paper, an area which surprisingly was buried way towards the back of the paper. Given all the hype that was around about what was going to be done by this government for rural Australia, it is absolutely amazing that it got such scant attention. We had to look very hard at the white paper to find anything of any great significance for regional Australia.

  It seems as though what the government has decided finally is that fixing the problems of regional Australia is going to be so time consuming and costly that, really, it will not bother at all. But look at the problem that we have. We have an unemployment rate in this country of 10.3 per cent, but in the regional areas of Australia we find this figure skyrockets. In the Hunter region we have 16.1 per cent unemployment. It is higher in Newcastle at 16.4 per cent. The north coast of New South Wales in my area has long, persistent and entrenched unemployment levels of 17 per cent. What hope is there in this paper for people in those areas, the ones who have heard of the Kelty report, the ones who put in submissions? A large amount of time and effort was put into compiling a document and making recommendations that this white paper was supposed to address.

  It was, to me, a great pity that the press did not focus, as it often does not do, on the failures of this government. It looked at the general treatment of unemployment, but I saw very little attention paid in the press to what is one of the most pressing needs in this country, and that is solving the problem of unemployment in regional Australia. The government set up a task force to do it, but the net effect of what the task force has done is to not deliver for the people of rural and regional Australia.

  What did regional Australia get out of the $6.5 billion over four years? It got $270 million over four years across the whole of regional Australia. Yet as the McKinsey report found, 41 per cent of the regions covered in the rural areas are in terminal decline. In effect, what the government has done in this report—and the Prime Minister not only admits it; he almost boasts about it—is to let it go and pass the buck over to the local authorities. Honourable senators will recall that in his speech he cited two regions. He talked about Goulburn Valley and Sunraysia and what was being done in the northern areas of Victoria. He outlined the government's plans and talked about the doubling of product in those areas. But it was not because of anything he was doing; it was because of the efforts of the local authorities.

  If we look at the nature of the programs in areas like Sunraysia, we realise that what they are really on about in those areas is desalination. If the salt problem in these areas can be got rid of, it will boost productivity enormously straightaway. So the Prime Minister is giving a very misleading impression in the one example that he cited.

  What is the role of the federal government in all of that? It plans to put in a few capital works to back up what the local authorities are doing. I would have thought that since the time of Federation, and even in the times of the colonies, it was seen as the natural role of government to put in capital works to back up local initiatives. In other words, this white paper is doing absolutely nothing for regional Australia. As a matter of fact, the figure of $270 million across the whole of regional Australia over the next four years is probably showing that the government is drawing resources out of regional Australia, not putting extra into it. It was all too hard for the government, so in effect it has given up on regional Australia.

  Let us see what the government has done for one of the major problems in rural Australia, that is, transport. The white paper provides $10 million in 1994-95 and then $20 million over the next three years—$70 million completely for infrastructure in response to what the Kelty report saw as probably the major initiative that was needed in regional and rural Australia. This is what it provides.

  One of the most amazing things, in light of what has happened so far, is that the government's main response seems to be to set up another committee. It has decided to create the national transport planning task force—another committee. We have had the Kelty report, the McKinsey report and the Industry Commission report and, as a result of all those exhaustive findings, what does the government say? It says, `We will set up the national transport planning task force'—anything to avoid spending money on these regions and doing anything about the real problem.

  The government did not really need to set up another report because the McKinsey report identified that all levels of government need to be involved in proper labour market reform, in deregulating transport, in improving infrastructure and in minimising red tape. We did not really need a government report to tell us that—we have known that for years—but the government has again squibbed it and done nothing about it.

  The government has decided to bring in one measure which we realise, when we have a close look at it, is really just part of the old, failed One Nation package. It has recycled what it was going to do in investment with pooled development funds and infrastructure bonds. It is trying very hard to make these more attractive to investors. It has not worked so far, and the government is going to try to make it slightly more attractive. Whether that succeeds, we will see.

  Regional Australia has major problems. The government, in this white paper, has really just thrown a pittance at those problems. We will be reminding the people of regional Australia of this right up until the next election.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator McGauran)—Is leave granted for the incorporation of the remainder of Senator Spindler's speech in Hansard?

  Senator Vanstone—Yes, as far as the coalition is concerned, leave is granted, with the proviso that the Democrats understand that they cannot come back on another day and say, `We have done this before. The precedent has been set.' This is an exception, for the obvious reason that it is unsatisfactory. People then try to whiz stuff through and we have to give up the time we have here to read some 10-page speech that someone has devised for us to read and have to stop doing the work we were doing so that we can let them incorporate something, especially when they are people who voted for 10-minute speeches anyway.

  Senator McMullan—From the government's point of view, we also give leave, but I did indicate to Senator Spindler that I had profound reservations about the principle of it. But it has been a fairly flexible adjournment arrangement today with special arrangements for Senator Campbell, so I think we should accommodate Senator Spindler on this one occasion also.

  Leave granted.

  The remainder of Senator Spindler's speech read as follows

  The Government has had four inquiries into regional development over the past year. The Industry Commission said that the Government needed to make regions more attractive to capital by improving regional infrastructure. The McKinsey Report said that business had real concerns about Government commitment to infrastructure. The Kelty Report proposed dozens of needed infrastructure projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

  So what did we get? $10 million this year for two `demonstration' projects. Now the Australian Democrats pushed very hard for, and support the two projects in Goulburn Valley and Sunraysia. However, this picture of regional Australia launching into a boom based on thousands of people coming from all over Australia to be inspired by what's happening in Mildura and Echuca is not one that gives me a lot of confidence.

  Bill Kelty called for a commitment to equal access to basic infrastructure for all Australians, with special assistance to remote areas—an admirable set of goalposts, but the government seems to be kicking the ball in the other direction. Why has the Government so completely dumped the results of the Kelty Report?

  The Government is relying, it claims, on the private sector to build regional Australia's infrastructure. The history of private sector support for regional infrastructure would suggest this belief ranks slightly ahead of a belief in the Tooth Fairy and slightly behind the Easter Bunny. Of course, the Government will claim that this fantasy can be made reality through the bit of tinkering it has done to the tax-breaks on infrastructure bonds.

  We welcome the changes to the infrastructure bonds. We hope they work. But there are two fundamental flaws in this approach. The private sector doesn't build the sort of infrastructures communities need, because most of the benefits from a lot of infrastructure are social and not capturable by private industry. The private sector is never a great provider of schools, hospitals, and community services, and doesn't have that much better a record in provision of transport infrastructure. The other problem with the approach is that it doesn't recognise that the reason the private sector doesn't like major infrastructure projects isn't the return—it's the risk. If the Government is really serious about generating private involvement in infrastructure, it at least needs to look at some Government equity or insurance against completion risks.

  Apart from the breath-taking lack of support for regional infrastructure, what else did we get? The Democrats support the financing for Regional Economic Development Organisations, but without support for infrastructure projects, their effectiveness will be limited. We also support the Regional Environment Employment Program. But that's about it, really.

  We had called for a $50 million package to maintain Government services in hard-hit rural areas. Where is it? We had called for a 12-month extension to the Investment Allowance for rural producers—where is it? For years the injustice of rural families not being able to get access to assistance such as Basic and Family Payments because of the paper value of the family farm has been well documented. We called for the exemption of the family farm from the assets test. The failure of the Government to act on this proposal is nothing less than heartless.

  And the most amazing gap of all is that there is not one mention in the entire White Paper of the higher costs faced by country dwellers for petrol and other basics. Did the Government put together a regional development package without visiting the regions? It's pretty hard to talk to anyone outside of metropolitan Australia without finding out that these price disparities are about the single biggest issue on their minds.

  The Australian Democrats recognise the benefits of vibrant regions—diminished pressures on urban infrastructure, national security, a more varied lifestyle choice for all Australians, benefits for tourism, niche business opportunities and many more. Vibrant regions are therefore an appropriate social goal and, as a nation, we have to recognise that we have to pay to achieve that goal. As part of that, we have proposed general acceptance of the principle of cost-equalisation between city and country for basic items such as petrol, communications, water and electricity. For yesterday's Government White Elephant—sorry White Paper—we called for immediate action to reduce city/country petrol price disparities. What happened? Why no action?

  So we've got bits and pieces of an industry strategy and a so-called regional development plan that is an insult and a disgrace. When is the

Government going to muster the courage and intellectual rigour to develop a coherent, strategic approach to industry policy and regional development?

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Order! The time for the debate has expired.

Senate adjourned at 7.45 p.m.