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Monday, 6 December 1999
Page: 12836

Mr ZAHRA (4:18 PM) —I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate my colleague the member for Shortland on initiating the private member's motion. We are talking about a very serious issue, the divide between rural Australia and people living in capital cities—in particular, those living in Sydney and Melbourne. This divide is very significant and mirrors the divide which exists in Australia between the very rich and the very poor.

The attitude of this government was best summed up by the previous so-called minister for regional development, John Sharp, who said that there was `no clear constitutional role' for Commonwealth involvement in regional development. That is what he said, that is what the government believed then and that is what the government believes now. Obviously the government believes that still, because it has abolished the so-called regional development portfolio, which used to exist at the Commonwealth level, and has replaced it with Regional Services appended to the transport portfolio—which demonstrates just how seriously the government takes regional development in this nation.

The government does not realise the enormous potential of rural Australia. It honestly has no understanding of the enormous opportunities which we, as rural Australians, can offer the nation. That really is a clear difference between Labor and the conservative parties. Their approach is the old-fashioned, Country Party, pork-barrel approach. We on this side of the House have always been interested in rural empowerment. That has been the most significant difference in terms of policy between the government and us. What it has always been about is the old Country Party way: cutting off a slab of sick, maggot-infested pork, throwing it to rural communities and letting people make themselves sick while they feed on it for a while; while we have always been about going into those rural communities, working with them, empowering them and helping them choose their own future.

We have seen from this government cuts to services time and time again. Have a look at what the government has in store for rural Australia. We have got serious threats to our post offices. I heard before a coalition member talking about the great advantages of rural transaction centres. What a con! What a farce! Everyone knows that the only way that that program has been able to be funded has been through massive cuts to Telstra and, in particular, through massive cuts to the jobs of Telstra employees in rural Australia.

Anyone who reads the fine print should be aware that the rural transaction centres must become self-funding within five years, after which the funding is taken away. While some rural communities might say now, `This is great for us,' and give up their post office, unfortunately, in five years time, if the RTC is not self-funding, they will not have a post office to fall back on, and so they will have absolutely nothing.

We have seen child-care centre closures in rural Australia. We have seen high unemployment rates, and none more so that in my own constituency, which continues to have the second highest unemployment rate in Australia. We have seen threats to regional universities and regional TAFE colleges. Recently in Victoria, Mr Deputy Speaker—as you would be aware, as a Victorian—the new state Labor government has revealed the parlous financial state of the Central Gippsland Institute of TAFE, an incredibly important provider of higher education in the region of Gippsland. It had been allowed to run down to a ridiculous state by the state and federal governments.

More recently, we have seen the folly of coalescence in the aged care sector which will lead to the closure of such facilities as the Neerim District Soldiers Memorial Hospital, which provides an important nursing home function. We have heard a lot of talk from the government about their commitment to rural Australia, but in my part of the world there has not even been an invitation to participate in the Rural Australia Summit.

The attitude of this government can be best seen in the attitude of the Prime Minister towards the region of Gippsland. Despite my giving an invitation to the Prime Minister to visit Gippsland so that he could see first hand the desperate economic circumstances we find ourselves in, some 10 months after I extended that invitation I have not heard even a word back as to when he plans to come and there has been no visit whatsoever. This Prime Minister hates the people of Gippsland. He is not serious about doing anything for them. The only time he comes to Gippsland is when he has a flak jacket on. He obviously thinks we are a bunch of thugs and he is not interested in engaging seriously with us. I congratulate the honourable member for introducing the motion. (Time expired)