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Thursday, 27 May 2004
Page: 29361

Mr FITZGIBBON (12:55 PM) —It should not be surprising that government members, given they have so few positive things to tell their electorates about in response to this budget, should waste so much of their time misrepresenting the Labor Party's position on taxation. I do not really see the point, because the fact is that the Australian people will know well and truly in advance of the next federal election exactly what the Labor Party's position is on these issues. So it is an interesting experience following the member for Moncrieff. It is always an even more interesting experience following the member for Paterson, who in here today in response to this budget did exactly as he does in his own electorate, which was to spend all of his time talking about state issues rather than holding himself to account for the impact on his electorate of a range of Howard government decisions over the course of the last eight years and the total lack of vision in the budget. I will return to the member for Paterson a little later if I get time.

Most speakers making a contribution on Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2004-2005 and the cognate bills in their response to the budget have focused their comments on the income tax and family benefits arrangements announced in John Howard's ninth budget. I want to focus on two other important aspects—or, more to the point, two aspects that were again missing in this year's budget. Those aspects are leadership and vision. But, before I turn to those points, I want to associate myself with the comments of those members of this House who have expressed their outrage that so many Australian families and individuals were denied any tax relief in this year's budget. I also want to say how thoroughly unsurprised I am that the so-called goodies in the budget were directed to the demographic where the government is likely to get maximum political dividend. However, scratching their heads are all those residents in my electorate who get no tax relief or additional family benefits in the budget.

Residents in my electorate are disappointed about many things. They are disappointed by the government's restructuring of Medicare—the government's determination to transform it from a universal system to a two-tiered system. They are disappointed that no hope was given to those who are desperate to have their teeth fixed but cannot get assistance. They are disappointed that, slowly but surely, our education system is going back to the dark old days when quality and higher education were reserved for those with the ability to pay. They are wondering when the Howard government will finally wake up to the fact that long-term and high levels of youth unemployment will be with us until the government faces up to and deals with the structural issues which drive it. Those issues include structural adjustment in regional areas, skills shortages and skills gaps. They are very prominent issues in my electorate, but they are areas in which the Howard government is unprepared to act.

Mr Bartlett —What about unfair dismissal laws?

Mr FITZGIBBON —I am happy to take the interjection on unfair dismissal laws. Whenever the government is in trouble it rolls out the old unfair dismissal laws for small business. Those of us who have worked in small business instead of, for example, spending our careers in the teaching profession know that this is a 10th order issue for small business. Forget about the numbers that the government makes up from time to time. It is a 10th order issue. Once a society, through its legislature, comes to a conclusion about what represents a fair and unfair dismissal, surely it should apply those principles equally to people, whether they have 18 work colleagues or, say, 30 work colleagues. This is a red herring. It is something that the government rolls out every time the polls are going badly for it.

Also amongst the disappointments for my constituents in the budget were road funding issues. I heard the member for Paterson talking about them. He picked up on the point that I think I made on local radio: once again the national highway project, in particular, the New England Highway in my electorate, has been dudded because the Howard government continues to skim off money for the very road network it does have responsibility for—that is, the national highway—to fund other projects which are state responsibilities, because that is where it believes it gets the best bang for its buck. The Pacific Highway is just one example.

I do not begrudge the Pacific Highway additional funding—not by any means—but I do believe that the Commonwealth government should be focusing most on the area over which it has direct responsibility, and that is the national highway. These RONIs, as they are called—Roads of National Importance—are just a political stunt: a means of redirecting money into projects where the government gets the best bang for its buck. For example, in my electorate, the so-called Kurri Kurri Corridor—the all-important economic road link between the F3 freeway and the New England Highway north of Branxton, which is a $320 million project—got just $4 million in this year's budget and in the out years received nil. This is a project that has now been in the pipeline for more than 10 years, and not a sod of soil has been turned to commence the project.

The Muswellbrook bypass is another critical part of the national highway network—and I remind you again, Mr Deputy Speaker Hawker, that these RONIs are not part of the national highway network. The Muswellbrook bypass, a critical part of the national highway network and a project critical to the safety and amenity of Muswellbrook residents, received $0 in this year's budget. It is a $50 million project. How many years will the residents of Muswellbrook have to wait, at the rate at which that project is receiving funding?

The member for Paterson mentioned Weakleys Drive, another very important project on the national highway. I went there with Laurie Brereton when he was roads minister in 1995 and he announced that project—I think it was then some $33 million. There is still not a sod of soil turned. Why? Because the Howard government was elected in 1996. They cut the funding to the national highway project. They have since been skimming money off to Roads of National Importance projects, and there is still not a sod of soil turned on the Weakleys Drive intersection—the point at which Weakleys Drive meets the New England Highway. Yet the member for Paterson is in here asking constituents in that local area to be thankful that in this year's budget we got not $30 million but $1.5 million, and thankfully next year we get another $20 million. In other words, after all of this time, the project will hopefully reach completion in the foreseeable future. But all those residents who commute every day from Maitland and beyond, further up the Upper Hunter to Newcastle, will be waiting at those traffic lights in queues kilometres long for at least two years and probably longer, depending on the period of the construction phase.

The other big infrastructure project in the electorate that is so important—and some people see it as a sporting facility—is Energy Australia Stadium in Newcastle, the home of the champion Newcastle Knights. It is not just a sporting field; it is a driver of the local economy. A couple of years ago, the Carr Labor government acknowledged and recognised this. In doing so, they looked at a University of Newcastle report which demonstrated that the stadium is far more than a sporting facility; it is an engine for economic growth in the Hunter. In recognising that, they gave a significant amount of money—about $23 million initially and I think a little bit more later. Since then, the Newcastle Knights and all those who have a vision for using Energy Australia Stadium for other sports—for example, rugby union; we had the opportunity to have a rugby game in Newcastle during the Rugby World Cup, but of course the stadium was not up to standard—are begging the Commonwealth to match or at least make a contribution to Bob Carr's commitment to Energy Australia Stadium. But alas, they were disappointed again in this year's budget.

Returning to the subject of roads, having identified all those points upon the national highway network, along the New England Highway, for which the Commonwealth has responsibility, I should say that we do hold out some hope. Hope springs eternal, and we are hoping that, as a crucial part of the national highway network, the New England Highway will receive some funding on 7 June when John Anderson, the Deputy Prime Minister, announces his AusLink project. Not only are we hopeful, we expect it, because how can you have a commitment to a national transport vision without finishing the national highway project? You cannot possibly claim that the national highway project is complete while ever you have big bottlenecks and dangerous sections, as we do right throughout the New England Highway, throughout the Upper Hunter. You cannot claim the vision and the completion of that project unless you address these matters. So we look forward to that being done within the AusLink project in the not too distant future.

I want to return to my original point—that is, the lack of leadership and vision. These are the things we do not see in Commonwealth budgets anymore. We got the Intergenerational Report, which told us what we already knew, but we had no real action taken in response. We never hear the government talking about nation building, the very things that will address structural unemployment, for example. We never see any leadership amongst the states. We see bickering between the Commonwealth and the states these days, because there is no leadership at the Commonwealth level.

It surprises me that the government has not been prepared to pick up the ball where the Keating government left it and to run with it. No-one can deny the success of the reforms of the Hawke and Keating years. I am very pleased to have finally heard even the Prime Minister, in a more candid moment, acknowledging that fact. But one of the things that does surprise me is that the Howard government just seems to have dropped the vision and leadership ball. There is no other area in which that is more apparent than in my own area of responsibility, in particular in mining.

This is the Prime Minister's approach to energy in this country: committee after committee, task force after task force, which result in nothing, and the occasional announcement of a big contract somewhere—the late arrival of the Prime Minister to announce a big gas project, for example. I saw on the front page of the Australian yesterday that he is going to meet Arnold Schwarzenegger. Obviously he has worked out that photo opportunities with George W. Bush at this point in the political cycle, with the deterioration in the situation in Iraq, are going to provide very little political dividend if indeed they do not produce negative responses for him.

The Prime Minister is going to go to California on his trip and he is going to have his photo taken with Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is going to be the photo shoot of the trip. But why is he going to California? He says he is going there to deliver another big gas contract for Australia into the west coast of the United States—one of the biggest markets in the world. My advice to the Prime Minister is to first of all stay out of it, because the last time the Prime Minister got himself involved in negotiations for the export of LNG to another country all he did was drive the price down. All he did was undermine Australia's export opportunities. The fact is that the quality of our resource, our geographic location and our lack of sovereign risk made Australia odds-on to secure an LNG contract into China. We did not need the Prime Minister in Beijing talking the price down, and we do not need the Prime Minister backing winners on what would inevitably be a monopolistic receival terminal in California. The market will sort it out.

But the big thing the Prime Minister has not shared with us is this: where is the gas coming from? He says he is going to see Arnold Schwarzenegger to convince him to back BHP's plans—he is picking winners again, which is the thing he does worst—and build a receival terminal. Then he is going to come back to Australia and say, `I have done it again. The man of steel has done it again—I have secured a $20 billion LNG contract with the United States of America.' I call upon the Prime Minister to give us a little bit more detail on that and to tell us where the gas is coming from. We know it is not coming from the North West Shelf venture, because most of the gas in that project is committed. We know it is not coming from the Timor Sea. So do we assume it is coming from the Gorgon field? Or is it coming from the Scarborough field? It is the Scarborough field in which BHP has some equity. It does not have any equity in the Gorgon project.

So where is the gas coming from? These are the questions the Prime Minister needs to answer. Scarborough is a long way off—no-one is even talking about developing Scarborough. If he is talking about taking gas from the Gorgon field, I want to know whether this is partly about giving BHP leverage to get equity into the Gorgon field—not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that, but we want to see the cards on the table. We do not just want the Prime Minister going to the west coast of the United States, standing next to Arnold Schwarzenegger and duping the Australian electorate into believing that because he is there talking about a monopoly facility and picking a winner off the west coast of Australia that is automatically going to deliver a big gas contract for Australia. Of course, it is not, and these things need to be explained. We want more than a front pager in the Australian announcing that yet another big deal is imminent.

We had one of those announcements with respect to the Gorgon field and China late last year but, of course, nothing is concrete—not even close to it. I suggest to the Prime Minister that he stay out of international negotiation—an area in which he has got only very poor form—and start talking instead about his plan for a domestic national energy policy. Let us hear the Prime Minister talk about our own medium- to long-term needs. Instead of him just talking about exports, let us hear the Prime Minister start asking questions about our own medium- to long-term needs so that when we are assessing what is in the Australian interests in terms of exports and the price at which we might be selling those goods we know what is in Australia's long-term interests in terms of our own domestic needs.

What will inevitably happen is that the companies will come back to the Australian community in 10 years time when we are really ready to talk seriously about weaning ourselves off imported oil—and we are seeing the consequences of that at the moment—and talk about shifting to gas in particular. The companies will be telling us, `That is fine, but you are going to have to pay a heavy price because all the easier to win, lower extraction cost gas is gone and the Australian consumer is going to have to pay the consequences.' That is fine—let us talk about these export contracts. They are a good thing for Australia and we all support them, but let us have more from the Prime Minister in terms of energy policy than a photo shoot with Arnold Schwarzenegger. If he wants to talk about a $20 billion contract into the west coast of the United States, we want to know now how he intends to deliver it. We want to know how he is going to transform that into a real benefit for all Australians.

This is just one facet of energy policy. What about our local electricity and gas networks? The reforms of the Keating era, as I suggested, are overwhelmingly supported. All the gains from those reforms, particularly in the utilities sector, where we had publicly owned vertically integrated monopolies, are well recorded and well recognised. But what about ongoing reform? It is a process that has stalled since March 1996. There is so much unfinished business there and in a sense the government have now acknowledged that by commissioning the Parer report, which has identified a whole range of deficiencies in our energy markets—in the electricity and gas markets, which are marked most by over-regulation and duplication of regulation. They have acknowledged it by commissioning a report which has given us a whole range of recommendations in relation to both electricity and gas, but there has been no response. There has not been one page of a response to the Parer report. When will the government get serious about picking up the reform ball again?

On another energy matter—petrol prices—when will it get serious and take more than a spectator's approach to the changing dynamic in our retail petrol market? With oil prices going through $US40 a barrel, it becomes even more critical, firstly, in terms of weaning us off oil-based fuels and, secondly, in terms of reigning in the market power of the major oil companies which dominate the retail market. There is a range of things which can be done which become particularly important in the face of the emerging duopoly in the retail market. The two key things that can be done are: strengthening section 46 of the Trade Practices Act, specifically outlawing predatory pricing; and opening up the terminals to independent players to enhance competition in the market. (Time expired)