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Monday, 18 March 2013
Page: 1938


Senator RUSTON (South Australia) (18:10): I, too, rise to speak on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2012-2013 and Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2012-2013. From an economic and fiscal perspective, I think that the government's primary purpose is to make sure that we have got an economy that is able to generate income so that we can afford to have all the things that a socially responsible society seeks to deliver to its people. To be spending money that we do not have, or to spend money that has been borrowed without any sensible plan for economic growth, seems to me a very irresponsible way to be approaching our fiscal and budgetary situation in this country. Soon we will be using all of our income to pay the interest on our debt, and that is unsustainable. We all know, from our own personal household budgets, that when you get to the extent where you are paying so much on your loans; your credit cards and anything else that you have managed to rack up—your department store credits and the like—eventually you get to the stage where you have to do something about what is going out, because otherwise you are not going to be able to achieve any benefits. If we want to be a society that has all of those public and social benefits that should be afforded to a nation that is as rich as Australia is, then we have got to start addressing issues of debt and deficit so that we can start spending the money that we are generating from income on things that are really positive—things that people in Australia actually want to have—and all of those lovely things that I know that I, for one, would like to see happen. I would like to see the National Disability Insurance Scheme funded; I would like to see our dental scheme funded; I would like to think that, for people who are not able to look after themselves for whatever reason, there is enough money in the barrel at the end of the week so that they can get some benefit, because they are not able to have as fair and as nice a life as those of us who have the luxury of having a good job. Unfortunately, if we do not have any money because we have spent it all on interest payments—and there will be, in the future, no money left to be able to pay these things—that is not a country that I want to live in; that is not a society that I want to live in and I am sure that it is not a society that anybody in this chamber wants to live in.

The most obvious example of the lack of productive spending of money that could be put to better use was the economic stimulus package. Australia, and particularly regional Australia at the moment, is crying out for productive infrastructure: roads, port upgrades, water delivery efficiencies—there are so many things that we could be spending money on, in terms of infrastructure, that would easily have great benefit across the whole of Australia. I look back with great pride at the Snowy Mountains scheme, when that was put in, and I think everybody in Australia was terribly proud of the fact that we were world leaders in our infrastructure development for that particular project. Where are our Snowy Mountains schemes on the books at the moment? Where are the things that we should be doing and spending our money on so that we can allow our primary producers and our people who live in the regions—the people who produce the income and who are actually productive in this country—to be successful?

As well as this infrastructure, we would also be providing an ongoing legacy for Australia into the future. This would be instead of spending this money like we saw with the stimulus package and a number of other things. It was a quick fix to a problem—an easy vote-buying thing. If you pop $1,000 in somebody's bank account they are probably going to be more likely to want to vote for you at the next election. Unfortunately, at the moment, with times as tough as they are, people only see to the next pay cheque or the next amount of money. And I understand people's response to getting $1,000 into their bank accounts: it is all terribly nice. But what of our responsibility as legislators to try and develop a system where we are actually providing something for the future of our country?

There are a couple of specific issues that I would like to highlight in this regard. For instance, Building the Education Revolution. In the electorate in which I live we have a special school for children who have special needs. For some unknown reason, the South Australian government built this school on the side of a hill. As you would probably all well know, a lot of children with disabilities are actually in wheelchairs, so putting it on a steep slope was a pretty silly place to put it. Eventually, they got approval to move this school to a flat area. However, they had been given the money for their school shelter. When they asked if they could actually defer the expenditure of the money for their school shelter until they moved to their new site, they were told that they could not. Hence, we have this lovely new school shelter built on a site that no longer houses the children of the Riverland Special School.

Another Building the Education Revolution project that I am very disappointed to say has gone by the wayside was the Queensland School for Travelling Show Children. This is a school for the children of the showmen who provide the sideshows and the rides at all of the shows around Australia. I am not sure if this house is aware, but there are 6,000 people moving around the country each year in the show family—the moving show town that goes around the country. Of these 6,000 people there are about 65 children of school age.

A number of years ago there was an amount of money graciously made available to this particular show school by the members opposite—it was a Labor Party initiative—which saw the provision of a prime mover and a classroom so that these people could take their school with them and employ a teacher to provide the education for these students. I particularly draw to the house's attention the need for a teacher to be associated with this travelling school, as opposed to using distance education. That is because many of the people who work on these sideshows are illiterate; the parents will tell you quite willingly that they are very desperate to ensure that they have a teacher with these students because they do not themselves have the capacity to be able to provide the oversight in education for their children.

When the decision was made by the Queensland government that they were no longer in a position to be able to pay for the entire education of all of these show children, despite the fact that many of them did not actually reside in Queensland, we sought to find a way that they could keep their classroom, their prime mover and their teacher on the road. The Queensland government generously agreed to provide distance education support for this to continue, but for some strange and wondrous reason the New South Wales and Victorian governments have been asked to stump up $300,000 to pay for the prime mover and the classroom, which have already been allocated to the show school.

One would actually have to question why we have the situation where we have already paid for them and now we are going to have to pay for them again. Right now, as I stand in this chamber, the children of the travelling show school do not have their classroom and they do not have their prime mover. The cost of the teacher who is travelling with them at the moment is being paid by the parents because there has been no provision made in any budget to be able to afford this teacher. I think that is really very sad, because these people have just as much right as anybody else to have an education—particularly given that they have admitted the parents do not have the capacity to be able to help their children through their education classes.

Another area that is of extreme concern to us, and which was touched on quite significantly by Senator Nash, is in relation to primary industries. Australia used to be considered a world leader in innovation and technology in research and development. It was our competitive advantage; it was the reason Australia was so successful during the sixties, seventies and eighties as a primary producer. In the seventies we used to export our irrigation technology to places like Israel. Israel, very cleverly, took that technology and innovation and applied it in their own arid climate, which is very similar to ours, and now we see that most of the irrigation technology that is being exported around the world is actually coming out of Israel and not out of Australia. This is because we have reduced the amount of funding and the incentives that we are putting in place for people to pursue research and development, innovation and technology within the primary industries sector.

I can remember the Loxton Research Centre, which was a research centre in the community in which I live. We were considered one of the most important horticultural research centres in the world. Quite often, some of the findings of the research activity at this centre would lead to the development of new techniques in production and new varietal types that could meet the conditions—particularly things like growing crops with less water. Surely, but surely, the sense of that must have been borne out by the issues with the water restrictions placed on the Murray-Darling Basin in the recent drought. Research and development was such an important part of the history of the development of the primary production sector in this country, and it seems very tragic that we are now seeing that whole sector contract.

Another area that is probably having as much impact at the moment is the cost-recovery model as it is being implemented. Along with everybody else, I accept the fact that cost recovery is probably something that we are going to have to live with into the future. As a primary producer I probably would prefer that we did not have it, but if we are going to put in cost-recovery measures, at the same time we also have to make sure that our supply chain efficiencies and the application of the things that government needs to do are absolutely at their most efficient. We are not seeing that. I noted with the introduction of the cost-recovery model from AQIS into the export activities of Australian producers of recent times that $127 million was agreed in order to put in supply chain efficiency measures so that when full cost recovery came into play these measures would offset to a large degree the amount of money that exporters would be required to pay to export product. What we now see, as we stand here today, is that we are nearly at the end of that $127 million. It appears as if the exporters have not received very much in the way of supply chain efficiencies to offset the cost of export. Yet, in a minute, we are going to have to bear the full burden of cost recovery.

It is really important that we understand the value of exporters. We seem to have forgotten somehow that exporters are probably the most important thing that we have in this country, because these guys are the positive side of our balance of trade figures. If we do not support exporters and we end up being a net importer, it does not take very long to realise where all of that ends up. It ends up in exactly the same place as living on borrowed money. We need to generate income in our country and we need to export the products that we are producing so that we can get new money back into this country. That is what has made this country so rich and prosperous in the past and it is very important that we continue to take that economic approach to how we deal with Australian production into the future.

We need to get rid of red tape as well. I have a couple of examples of recent bills—the ag and vet bill and the biosecurity amendment bill, that is currently before us—that have come through this house which were supposedly going to reduce red tape and reduce the burden on industry, particularly on primary industry. I cannot see how a bill that is supposed to reduce the burden on industry, that is going to cost the industry more in a situation of cost recovery, cannot possibly be a burden on industry. It beggars belief that you would actually be bothered generating a bill to try to decrease the burden that, intrinsically, will increase the cost and ultimately increase the burden on producers.

As mentioned by Senator Nash and others before her, a number of things have exacerbated the problem following the knee-jerk reactions we have seen and the changing of government policy which is increasing our sovereign risk. It is starting to get really quite scary in this country in the sense that nobody is quite sure what is going to happen next. You only have to look at the knee-jerk reaction to the ban on live exporting and to the fishing licence of the Margiris—orthe Abel Tasman. It actually gets quite scary because who is ultimately going to pay? Once again, we have got a situation where a government policy is actually going to end up costing the taxpayers of Australia. I am absolutely sure that the owners of the Abel Tasman are not going to go away without seeking compensation for something that they entered into—a legally binding obligation with the Australian government to allow them to do something that then got changed by legislation. Legally, these guys have got a right to recompense for the costs that have been associated with the change. We need to stop wasting money and we need to start spending money that is productive, money that will actually generate further income and further productivity, and be of benefit to the whole of Australia into the future.

The Prime Minister issued her Australia in the Asian century white paper not that long ago. This morning, I met with Austrade and a number of their Asian representatives, and it is a really exciting story. If you look at the opportunities that reside in Asia at the moment for Australian businesses not just agricultural businesses but service industry and supply industry businesses, there are myriad opportunities out there. Food is one of the very, very important ones. It was interesting to note in some of the conversations how small the percentage of their own calorie requirements is that many of these countries produce. Australia is sitting here with the massive opportunity, with the production ability, with all of the primary resources, with the technology, with the know-how and with the farmers. We could actually take the huge opportunity that the Asian century provides for us into the future if only we started spending our money more smartly and we started investing in the infrastructure that we need to be able to get our products from the farm gate onto the tables of Asia.

Before I finish, I would just like to quickly touch on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan and a particular infrastructure project that is currently trying to be progressed in the Riverland of South Australia. I refer to the Chowilla regulator. Only today, it has become apparent that when the Chowilla regulator comes into being—the Chowilla regulator is on Chowilla Creek, a creek that bypasses the main river system at Lock 6 above Renmark—it will actually flood 10,000 hectares of land in Chowilla itself. Chowilla is a property owned by the Robertson-Chowilla family trust and it appears now as if no agreement has ever been reached with the owners of Chowilla in relation to the compensation that they believe is payable to them for the inundation of the 10,000 hectares of land, which they currently use for grazing. Anybody who knows that area of the river will realise that the value of the grazing lands on the floodplain is much, much more significant than the rest of the land that belongs to this particular property.

We now have a situation of a complete and utter stand-off between the owners of the Chowilla Station and the government, both the South Australian government and the federal department, in relation to the construction of this regulator. The estimated cost for the construction of the regulator when it was first put in was $43.2 million. It now appears as if it is going to be in excess of $61 million and this is before any compensation is paid to the owners of the property. Once again, surely somebody should be made accountable for the fact that we now have this ridiculous issue of compensation that could have been avoided had it actually been managed properly in the first place.

Another one that is concerning is the Water Industry Alliance—$265 million was promised by Minister Burke just before Christmas and it now seems that $25 million of this $265 million has disappeared. I do not know where it has gone, perhaps it has gone to administration in the department, I am not really sure. It is quite terrifying to see that things are not being dealt with properly in the first place and, in the end, the taxpayers of Australia have to pay for the bungles that have occurred. If they were managed properly in the first place, this situation would never have occurred.

In speaking to these bills, I suggest that a little more efficient and effective management of the government's limited resources and the application of those resources to productive use that actually goes to the long-term benefit and the long-term productivity of this country would be a much better use of our resources than spending it on things like compensation. (Time expired)

Sitting suspended from 18:30 to 19 : 30