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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 613

Mr BURKE (Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (4:39 PM) —Every now and then when you read out part of a document, you wonder, ‘Should I table it? Should I give them access to the rest of it?’ I thought I would do the right thing and table it. I have listened carefully to the comments that have just been made by the shadow minister for agriculture, fisheries and forestry where he has wanted to characterise what the member for Gippsland really meant when he uttered those prophetic words in his media release, saying:

Investing in regional infrastructure will help local communities to withstand the worst of the global financial crisis and I encourage the government to act quickly in this regard.

The shadow minister was effectively claiming that I had misrepresented those remarks because he said that what the government was offering, essentially—and I do not think I am mischaracterising it here—was short-term infrastructure projects, and what the member for Gippsland was really talking about was long-term infrastructure, like roads. So I had probably better read a little more of that media release.

Mr Gray —Please do.

Mr BURKE —It is the one with this heading, which will help to explain to the member for Calare his concept about the long-term infrastructure and road projects that the member for Gippsland was really talking about. The media release begins like this: ‘Chester calls for netball courts funding’. In terms of the long-term infrastructure that the shadow minister was just talking about, I give a few suggestions. First of all, I suggest that the member for Gippsland understands that projects themselves generate construction jobs and you get a whole lot of knock-on areas in the economy. For those members opposite, it is something that seems to be better understood by their backbench than by their frontbench. I would also be dearly concerned about the member for Calare’s possible occupational health and safety concerns if he sees a netball court in the future as a road. Beyond that, I make the suggestion that a document is tabled so that you can have a look at it rather than try to guess what the member for Gippsland really meant. I think he really meant what he said. It is available on the public record—and these are projects which do not meet the characterisation at all of what the shadow minister kept asserting.

Mr John Cobb —Look at the big picture, mate.

Mr BURKE —There is an interesting concept with respect to what the shadow minister just interjected, about looking at the big picture. He should understand, with the portfolio that he has, that part of understanding the big picture in a country as diverse as ours is making sure that you tend to the local picture in every part of the nation. We have a whole group of local members of parliament on this side of the House who understand how to do that in their own areas and who understand the importance in their own areas of making sure that, because a primary school is a local project for a relatively small number of people, it is still part of the big picture.

When you are talking about investing in every school—it does not matter whether it is a primary school or a high school, a government school or a non-government school, in the private system or in the Catholic system—all throughout the country, you get the big-picture benefit. You get the benefits in education because of the upgraded facilities. You get the benefits in the actual process of building those facilities—the benefits in terms of what happens for local contractors and the construction industry and the challenges that they are currently facing in the context of the global financial crisis. You get extra benefits because those contractors do not just receive the money and leave the town; the money gets spent in the area. This generates real economic activity at a time when all the advice that is coming to the government says that we need to make sure that we are generating economic activity and that we should be doing this not just in major cities but also in every school throughout the nation and looking at those black spot programs and saying, ‘Now is the time to make the investment and start fixing those’, and to actually go to the situation of the level crossings. Members opposite would understand the frustration over years of delay on doing something about level crossings and the impact that that has. Once again, you have the impact on the jobs and the workers involved in doing the job and you have the spin-off industries with them then spending the money that they have earned in the local area, and you have the long-term infrastructure improvement of local roads. All that is part of the big picture.

The Leader of the Nationals made the complaint that not every farmer will receive the $950. That is true—it is not every farmer, but it is pretty close to 21,000 of the most needy. We are making sure that they get some extra money. In terms of the business expenses that they have on their farms it is certainly a modest amount of money, but the impact that it could then have on local towns is deeply significant. The shadow minister for agriculture knows that the towns where there are the most people on EC payments are the towns where not just farmers are suffering but also every contractor and every shopkeeper is suffering. People having that extra EC money helped to generate economic activity in areas that needed it desperately, before we had ever heard of the economic crisis. Those areas desperately needed help, economic activity and assistance long before the world went into recession. Our plan provides some more money to help generate long-term economic activity, and the money will not disappear from the economy the first time it is spent.

Mr John Cobb —People would much rather hear that EC is going to be continued.

Mr BURKE —I have to pause at that. There is a deeply irresponsible fear campaign that the shadow minister has been involved in time and time again when people’s EC comes up for assessment by the National Rural Advisory Council. We are talking about people who have the greatest mental health problems and the highest suicide rates in the nation, and you decide to run a fear campaign when you know full well that we are running the assessments with the same panel under the same rules.

Mr John Cobb —Tell them it’s going to be rolled over.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—Order!

Mr BURKE —Communities are doing it tougher than they were when they were last given EC, so logically you can tell where that is going to end up. You know full well that there is a process that I am following—the same process that was in place under the previous government.

Mr John Cobb interjecting

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —The member for Calare is warned!

Mr BURKE —If the member for Calare feels proud of scaring farming families, of raising fear amongst some of the most vulnerable people in this country, then be it on his head.

Mr John Cobb —You’ve already scared the hell out of them!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —Order! The member for Calare has been warned.

Mr BURKE —Be it on your head if that is what you want to do. I have given the guarantee time and time again that EC will be granted under the same rules. There is nothing more irresponsible than running a fear campaign amongst people who are already so desperately vulnerable in so many ways.

The projects that are part of the Nation Building and Jobs Plan are designed to make sure that we can help to generate economic activity and support jobs at a time where comparable nations are in recession. We are in a global recession, and if you were going to be anywhere in the world you would want to be here. We want to make sure that as a government we act decisively and early to make sure that we continue to generate economic activity with long-term and lasting benefits.

On this side of the House we support the $950 payments going to singles. For so long we as a parliament have made sure that we have provided assistance for families, but how many times have singles missed out, even though they have been suffering and have tremendous bills to deal with? For the first time in a long time there are bonus payments for them. On this side of the House we support the farmer’s hardship bonus, which members opposite are trying to block. We support those bonuses because we understand the situation that the globe is in.

Years ago there was a Supertramp album cover that was all doom and gloom except for a little bit of colour where someone was wearing sunglasses and sitting on a banana lounge. The album was called Crisis? What Crisis? That is the world that the opposition are living in if the comments from the shadow minister are any guide. It is as if they think the global economic crisis does not demand immediate decisive action. It is as if they have no idea how our economy interacts with the economies throughout the rest of the world. It is as if they do not understand that drought is but one of the challenges that farmers are facing. It is as if they have no idea about world commodity prices and what has happened over the last year with fertiliser and chemical prices. We know how responsive our economy is to what happens in the rest of the world. While the rest of the world is in such extraordinary hardship and recession, members opposite say, ‘Sit back, relax and take your time. But this government is going to make sure that we act decisively.

Our Nation Building and Jobs Plan covers different policy areas and will be felt right throughout the nation. The measures include free ceiling insulation for around 2.7 million Australian homes; building or upgrading a building in every one of Australia’s 9,540 schools; building more than 20,000 new social and defence homes; $950 one-off cash payments to eligible families, single workers, students, drought affected farmers and others; a temporary business investment tax break for small and general businesses buying eligible assets; and significantly increasing funding for local community infrastructure and local road projects.

When members opposite go back to their electorates this weekend, to each and every constituent who asks, ‘Am I eligible?’ they not only will have to explain whether or not they would be eligible under the government scheme but also will have to say, ‘You’d be eligible under what is proposed but we are trying to stop it.’ Make sure that you explain to the farmers in your electorates who are on EC—midway through trying to scare the hell out of them, as you seem to want to do—why you do not believe in a $950 payment for their family. Tell them why, in your judgement as the shadow minister for agriculture and representative of the National Party, you do not think they are worthy of that $950 payment.

Go and visit your schools tomorrow. Ask them first what sort of infrastructure project they would like, and then explain to them that you are trying to stop them from getting it. Explain that to the local contractors who would have got the work. Explain it to the construction workers who would have had an economic opportunity. Explain it to the subbies who would have been able to get a job. Explain why you are opposed to it to the people in retail who would have benefited from there being a higher level of economic activity in the town. If the members opposite do that this weekend, we will see if they are still as irresponsible when they come back next week.

The people of Australia understand. The people of Australia are able to watch the news and understand what is happening in the rest of the world. They want to make sure that there is strong and decisive action so that we are not exposed to the full level of pain that the rest of the world is having. They want to make sure that we have a plan that generates immediate economic activity and, beyond that, makes sure that we have the long-term infrastructure for which people have been waiting for such a long time—such things as improvement of black spots on roads, dealing with level crossings and upgrading schools. These are things that members of the Labor Party are proud to have always believed in and are proud to be able to now deliver on. We are proud that we are able to be seen as members of the Labor Party. We are proud that we are able to look at our constituents in good faith, that we can see people in genuine need and be able to say that we are on their side, notwithstanding that we sit in this chamber and face people who want to take benefits away.