|Title||MATTERS OF PUBLIC INTEREST
Rural and Regional Australia: Unemployment
|Electorate||New South Wales
|Interjector||Mackay, Sen Sue
Boswell, Sen Ron
Woodley, Sen John
|Speaker||Forshaw, Sen Michael
|Stage||Rural and Regional Australia: Unemployment
|Context||Matters of Public Interest
Senator FORSHAW (1:00 PM) âOver recent weeks, indeed months, there has been a heightened focus upon rural and regional issues. There has been an increasing call from right across the country for this government, the federal government, to devote more resources, more attention to the needs of rural and regional communities. That call is, of course, not surprising given the record of this government since it came to office in 1996. I want to make some comments about that record in a moment, because it is a shameful one.
At the outset let me draw attention to the fact that the Prime Minister and some of his ministers have only recently discovered that rural and regional Australia is actually important, but to them it is important, it would appear, only in a political context. The Prime Minister, no doubt alerted to this fact by the opinion poll, donned his Akubra a few weeks back and set out on a highly organised tour of so-called rural New South Wales. When you look at the itinerary he undertook and the groups he met with, it is clear there was very little focus upon the real problems facing many rural communities in my home state of New South Wales and, of course, reflected in other states.
I find it rather strange that the Prime Minister was able to visit a town like Coffs Harbour and there attend a dinner which cost $100 a headâno doubt a fundraiser, but this was billed as an opportunity for the local community to meet the Prime Minister.
Senator Mackay âIs that right?
Senator FORSHAW âYes; but if you wanted to meet the Prime Minister in Coffs Harbour in what will be the marginal seat of Cowper at the next election, the only real chance you had was to purchase a ticket to this dinner. It is outrageous that what was trumpeted as the Prime Minister getting out there and meeting people in the bush and trying to understand their problems, really was in some respects a fundraising drive.
Let me turn to this government's record with respect to rural and regional Australia. Numerous reports presented to this parliament both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives over the past few years have documented the dramatic decline in services, opportunities and confidence outside the major cities and provincial towns of this country. In a number of those reports, members of the government parties have equally expressed their concerns. So this is not just a view expressed by the opposition. I will come to a couple of those reports in a moment.
What was the first thing this government did when they came to office? Some people have probably forgotten by now. Certainly the Prime Minister and his cabinet ministers have obviously forgotten. They abolished the Office of Regional Development. That shows how much concern they had for regional Australia. They abolished the one discrete department that had been established to particularly focus upon the issues of regional Australia. Over the past four years this government has, for instance, slashed 32,000 jobs in the public sector. Members of the government think that if you cut the public sector continuously that is bringing in efficiency. The problem is, as we have seenâparticularly in rural and regional Australia, where many towns need the presence of government services and government offices or agenciesâthe devastating effect that can occur when you cut jobs and close services and offices. They have shed at least 30,000 jobs in Telstra and the reports are that there will be at least another 13,000 to 16,000 to go. They cannot tell us where they will go, but it is quite clear that the bulk of those jobs will disappear in rural and regional Australia.
They have closed CES offices, Medicare offices, taxation offices. They set up Employment National as part of their restructuring of the employment service provided by government. They established some offices around Australia but within the space of less than a year they have closed a number of those offices. I was on the north coast of New South Wales only a couple of weeks ago. I went to the Employment National offices in Casino and Lismore, two major country towns, and there were signs on the doors that said `This office will be closed at the end of this week'. The office in Casino had been established only a few months previously. Staff had been made redundant.
You talk to some of those staff, as I have done, and they will say this was obviously a set-up from the start, that the government was never serious about ensuring that Employment National would be able to continue to deliver the much-needed service for people in rural and regional areasâpeople that are not able to be accessed by the private sector employment agencies that exist in the major cities, people who need in many cases special assistance, people who have to travel long distances just to have an interview with respect to job placement. Those offices have been closed. This government has stood idly by while banks have continued to shut down their branches in many regional centres and it has stood idly by while petrol prices have soared. This government cut $2.1 billion from valuable labour market programs.
This is not just the opposition speaking. If you look at two of the most respected organisations in this country, they back this up. The Australian Local Government Association has recently called for signature increases in regional road funding in the next federal budget. The Australian Council of Social Services in its budget submission this year has called on the government to appropriate more money to rural and regional areas. In its view, more than $700 million needs to be devoted to public transport, schools, telecommunications and hospitals for Australians living in rural and regional areas.
If we turn to the issue of employment, which I have already touched upon, this government boasts about its improvement in the unemployment figures. If you go out there into the bush, you will find out what the real story is. Long-term unemployment particularly is still bad and is getting worse; it is a major crisis in this country in regional and rural areas. More than 220 areas throughout Australia now have unemployment rates above 10 per cent. In recent times, as part of my responsibility as a senator from New South Wales, I have visited some areas on the North Coast. In Nambucca, the unemployment rate is 14.9 per cent; in Bellingen, it is 13.6 per cent; and in Kempsey it is 12.6 per cent. In the Tweed area, the holiday coast for many people who live in the cities, the unemployment rate is 11.8 per cent. In Byron Bay, it is a shameful 20 per cent. The government has done little to help reduce unemployment in the regions. Its only approach was to abolish the labour market programs which were so successful in these areas, such as LEAP and the new work opportunities program, and to put in their place work for the dole schemes.
Last month Kim Beazley, the Leader of the Opposition, launched Labor's Work Force 2010 and announced several policies which an ALP government would implement. That included key initiatives such as the establishment of a national work force forecasting council to monitor the job market and the nature of the work force. This proposal has been applauded by the National Farmers Federation. The NFF, as I know and as we all know, has never been a strong supporter of the Labor Party, yet it put out a news release on 23 February headed `NFF welcomes ALP focus on skills'. Under that policy, Labor will establish a national work force skills profile to identify the future skills needs of regional and industry work forces. Labor under that policy will introduce targeted training and retraining programs and it will put in place employment services necessary to deliver particularly in respect of the knowledge nation. As I said, it is a policy document, a program for the future, welcomed by the NFF. Of course, the NFF, like country Australia, has lost faith in this government. It has particularly lost faith with the National Party.
Senator Boswell âYeah? That's not what Ian Donges tells me.
Senator FORSHAW âVery much so. You only have to look at the representation of the National Party in this chamber. The once great Country Party that stood up for country people many years ago under Doug Anthony and others is reduced to a rump.
Senator Woodley âDon't forget Black Jack.
Senator FORSHAW âBlack Jack McEwenâreduced to a rump.
Senator Boswell âEarle Page.
Senator FORSHAW âYou've got to draw the line somewhere. You will mention Artie Fadden in a minute; let's not go back that far. But look at the state government election results in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria in only the last 12 months. What has happened? In each of those states the people have resoundingly rejected the coalition and particularly the National Party in the bush. They have no faith anymore in this government and in particular the National Party.
Senator Woodley âThey still vote for my mate Bob Katter.
Senator FORSHAW âMaybe the reason they vote for Bob Katter is that Bob Katter actually gets up on his feet occasionally and tells it like it is with respect to this government. Education is another area where this government has dramatically reduced the opportunities for people in rural and regional Australia. The government has cut over $170 million from regional and rural universities during its period in office in only a short four years. It has slashed TAFE funding by more than $240 million. It abolished the merit-based equity scholarship scheme, which assisted disadvantaged students, particularly disadvantaged rural students. In fact, this minister for education, Dr Kemp, really believes that there should not be regional universities; that the Southern Cross University in Lismore or in Coffs Harbour really should not exist.
I had the opportunity only two weeks ago of visiting Southern Cross University at Lismore and I know first-hand how important that university is to that region, not just for the students, but also to the community. It provides employment opportunities. It assists business because of the fact that people are employed there and there are students attending there. Those students do not have to leave their home town to go to Sydney or Melbourne or wherever it is in the cities to attend universities. They can attend a first-rate university in their local region. The other thing that I was particularly pleased to see while I was there was that that university provides a specialist department in studying indigenous affairs. It leads the way in Australia in that respect, which is vitally important in an area where there is a significant indigenous population.
I want to come to two recent reports, one of the Senate called Riding the waves of change: An investigation into national competition policy and the other a report of the House of Representatives released yesterday, Time running out: Shaping regional Australia's future. My time has unfortunately run out today, but I will get another opportunity to address these reports. I hope that the people of rural Australia will get an opportunity. I know they will get an opportunity to pass judgment on this government's lack of concern for rural and regional Australia when we next have a federal election.