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Thursday, 12 March 2009
Page: 2582

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (11:01 AM) —It is a pleasure to follow the member for Dawson in speaking to the Appropriation Bill (No. 5) 2008-2009 and related bill. He is quite right to point out the stark contrast between the approach of the government benches to the global economic crisis and the approach of the opposition. The opposition’s approach is: ‘Let’s sit and wait. Let’s wait until the situation gets worse and then we’ll think about whether we act or not.’ Whereas the government’s position on the global economic crisis is to act swiftly and decisively to make sure that jobs are front and centre in our response to this crisis.

I suppose the opposition can be excused to some extent, because I think on the opposition benches more time and energy is being spent arguing about whose turn it is to be leader next rather than looking at what is good for the community and what is good for Australia. I can assure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on this side of the House we are firmly in the camp of every Australian, making sure that we cushion our communities from the global economic crisis as best we possibly can, whether that is looking after pensioners, building infrastructure that is needed, making sure that local government is supported or working through COAG to make sure that we cooperate with the states. That is in stark contrast to what we see from the opposition. What a fundamental shift in philosophy we have seen from the Rudd government, when compared with the previous Howard government, in the way in which we approach the states and territories. The government approach to the issues that confront our communities is to sit down with the state and territory governments and cooperate so that we are working together to try to come up with collective solutions and are not working against each other.

Compare that approach and the outcomes that will be delivered from it with the approach of the previous government. The previous government’s position was, firstly, not to talk to the states at all, let alone to seek to reach an agreement. It was take it or leave it; you do it our way or you do not do it at all. Clearly that cannot be in the national interest, and in such difficult economic times and in a time of global financial crisis it is absolutely essential that we have all levels of governments working together. This government has been able to achieve not only reaching agreements with state governments through COAG but also working with local councils and local governments.

I am reminded of my local mayor, the Mayor of the Wyong Shire, who was quoted as being ‘absolutely ecstatic with the federal government’s approach to local councils’ and the money that we have released to stimulate local jobs. He said that this is something that is long overdue and most welcome in the Wyong Shire and that he looked forward to working with me as the federal member and with the Rudd government to deliver these projects to local governments so that local jobs can be retained.

You may think the Mayor of the Wyong Shire is a Labor hack, someone who has been put there by the party. In fact he is not. This mayor actually stood for the Liberal Party. He was a Liberal Party candidate; he was, in fact, a Liberal Party member in the seat of The Entrance in the New South Wales parliament for some period of time. People of goodwill, people who are concerned about our communities, are not playing politics in this global financial crisis. It does not matter what their background is; if they see a positive contribution being made, if they see that there are projects that are going to help local communities, then they will support them. That is what this man, Mr Bob Graham, has done, and he should be congratulated for embracing the Rudd government’s approach to this particular issue.

Only last week I had the pleasure of being with Mr Graham as we inspected the netball courts at Wyong, where some $400,000 of federal money is going to expand those netball courts so that they are up to state level and Wyong will be able to bid for the state championships. This was one of five local projects that the Wyong Council was able to do directly because it took a positive approach to cooperating and working with the Rudd government to create jobs locally. The Wyong Shire Council got over $1½ million in the local council stimulus, and that is something that I know all residents in the Wyong Shire are very happy about. Some of these projects, like the netball project, have been spoken about for over 10 years and have not been able to be done, but this is a project that is ready to go. While we were there announcing that the money for this project had been agreed to, a truck rolled up and the surveyors were already starting to look at doing the work—local people, local businesses, local jobs.

These appropriation bills go to important infrastructure areas such as rail, vital programs for helping people keep their jobs and retrain for new jobs, and water. I have said in this place before that, if you look at the government’s approach to the global financial crisis and the stimulus packages that have been introduced, if you were to design stimulus packages to assist the Central Coast then you would do exactly what the Rudd government has done—they fit perfectly with the issues that we need to address in Dobell and on the Central Coast. We have problems with rail; we have problems with unemployment—we have higher unemployment than the national average—and we have also had some very serious problems with water.

We are very familiar on the Central Coast with the consequences of a lack of water. It was only a year or so ago that our water supply was close to only 10 per cent and we were piping in water from the Hunter to make sure that the Central Coast, with over 300,000 people living there, did not go dry. But the Rudd government and a campaign that was run by me, the member for Shortland and the member for Robertson ensured that at the last election the Rudd government made a commitment of $80 million to build a pipeline that had been on the drawing board but not acted on for the last 10 years, which will drought-proof the Central Coast. We now have up to 30 per cent of our water capacity because of the recent rain that has fallen, but we cannot be complacent. Until this vital piece of infrastructure is built, we will always be in some danger of drought. These appropriation bills, which go to rail, to helping people keep their jobs and retrain for new jobs, and to water are very much at the forefront of issues that affect the seat of Dobell and the Central Coast.

The total appropriation being sought this year through Appropriation Bill (No. 5) is $384 million. The proposed appropriation will meet funding requirements for a number of measures announced in December 2008 for the national building project and is one that we need to support. It also covers recently announced changes to employment and apprenticeship programs and changes to the estimates of program expenditure due to variations in the timing of payments, forecast increases in the program take-up and other policy decisions taken by the government since additional estimates. Employment in apprenticeship programs is an absolutely vital part of making sure that we continue to have the right skills for the right jobs as the economy turns around in the future. In my electorate we have a high proportion of tradespeople, and these people employ the majority of the apprentices. It is vital that we have programs that encourage that to continue. As I have already mentioned, Dobell has almost twice the national average of unemployment. We have close to eight per cent unemployment at the moment, and youth unemployment on the Central Coast is close to 20 per cent. These are issues that particularly affect my electorate and it is very important that they are addressed.

Looking at the main items included under Appropriation Bill (No. 5) for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, there is $70 million for the General Employee Entitlements and Redundancy Scheme, GEERS, which covers capped unpaid wages, annual leave and long-service leave, capped payment in lieu of notice and capped redundancy pay. This is an estimates variation as GEERS is a demand-driven program, and the current economic climate will obviously see an increase in the demand for this particular program. It is interesting that the key words of GEERS, such as ‘entitlements’ and ‘redundancy’, are quite a concept for those on the other side, after all their failed Work Choices laws, which many on that side of politics are still flirting with and trying to cling to and which goes completely against such rights as entitlements and redundancies that most Australians expect. Most Australians made their views very clear in November 2007. We can only hope that, down the hall in the Senate, some sanity will be seen there and that the opposition, who once declared that Work Choices was dead, will put their short-term political infighting to one side and do the right thing by working Australians by assisting in making sure that we can once and for all say that Work Choices is gone, dead and buried. But, as we know, there are many on the other side who not only want to see it continue but would like to see it strengthened. I fear that the tensions within the Liberal Party will make it too big a hurdle for them to accept that their failed policy was repudiated at the ballot box and should finally be put to bed forever.

Another of the main items under this bill is the $46.5 million for infrastructure and training places for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. Investments are being made in public skills and training infrastructure—it is a secure economic activity—to address the sharpest impacts of the economic downtown and increase the capacity of the training sector over the long term to meet the 21st century skills needs. The next item for the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations is $43 million for new apprenticeships and apprenticeship centres. This is a parameter update as the program, again, is demand driven, and funds allocated for this program are expected to be exhausted prior to the year’s end.

Again under the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, there is a further $38.9 million to help trade apprentices find new employers, which is an absolutely vital role. These elements of the bills, focusing on new apprenticeships, apprenticeship centres and finding new employers for existing trade apprentices, are all vital for an area like my electorate of Dobell, which is on the New South Wales Central Coast. As I have said, unemployment, and especially youth unemployment, is well above the national average. Because we are a region outside of the country’s largest city, Sydney, and also outside of one of the largest regional cities in Australia, Newcastle, the majority of jobs for apprentices and young people exist in those centres. This makes it more difficult for a young person trying to make a start in a trade and maintain a job, as he or she has to spend many hours of the day commuting to and from work. As well, they often have to attend TAFE for several hours a week—probably in another location, far removed from where they work. It is vital that we support these young people in order to ensure that they can continue their chosen apprenticeships and help them skill and reskill in areas of greatest need. They are finding it tougher than apprentices and trainees who are based in the capital cities because of this extra travel time and distance that they face each day. We cannot let young apprentices lose their current employment because of a lack of work and be put off from their chosen trade. We have to quickly help them find a new employer in the same or similar field. These measures go some way towards addressing that particular need.

One of the main issues addressed in Appropriation Bill (No. 6) 2008-2009 is the $1.189 billion injected into the Australian Rail Track Corporation. This injection will fund 17 projects to improve the reliability and competitiveness of the nation’s rail freight network. One of the major projects includes expanding capacity in rail corridors to service the Hunter Valley coalmines and the connection to the port of Newcastle. This project is expected to more than double the export capacity at Newcastle from 97 million to 200 million tonnes per year. The Hunter region is just north of my seat, and there are many people in my seat who find employment in Newcastle and in these areas. Again, this is vital infrastructure that is going to help stimulate the economic development of the region and the country both in the short term and, just as importantly, in the long term.

In speaking about rail, I have to mention, of course, that the government is committed to developing a separate rail freight line between Sydney and Brisbane. Such a project will be a major infrastructure boost for regions such as mine on the Central Coast, which lies between Sydney and Newcastle, and will benefit many thousands of people. Not only would a separate rail freight line add major carrying capacity for land cargoes between two major centres; it would also free up the existing rail line for enhanced passenger train services. Thirty per cent of people in my electorate commute to either Sydney or Newcastle on the train every day of the week. Freeing up the existing line just for passenger train services is something that commuters on the Central Coast have been calling for for a long time. Too frequently there are breakdowns on our rail line that mean major delays for people trying to get to work. Almost always, the breakdowns occur with the heavier freight rail. Having a separate line will not only increase the capacity to transport more cargo between the various centres but also mean that the commuter line is there for commuters and enable people to travel faster and more securely to Sydney and Newcastle.

With the major increase in freight by rail, there should also be a marked decrease in road freight, particularly road freight on the major road link between Sydney and Newcastle, the F3 freeway. It has been estimated that, when a dedicated freight line is up and running, up to 1,900 truck movements per day would be cut. That is 1,900 truck movements per day that the F3 would be free of, allowing a dramatic improvement in the traffic flow and safety conditions for motorists on this major road link. It would also be a blessing for those who commute by road, because it suddenly gives the F3 a whole new capacity for some time. It also, quite importantly, means that there is a dramatic effect in terms of the greenhouse gases that will be removed by reducing by 1,900 the truck trips per day in this particular area. It is a very important infrastructure promise that this government is making about the rail network.

The difference between the parties is stark. We on the government benches are acting decisively and swiftly to make sure that money is going locally to short-term stimulus as well as to nation-building infrastructure, the lack of which has constrained the Australian economy for far too long. What we have been faced with from those on the opposition benches is dithering, inaction and confusion. One finds it very difficult to understand what the opposition’s position is in relation to many of the measures that the Rudd government has announced.

The classic example was the October stimulus package. We were told first of all that it was something that was supported by the opposition. Then came the doubt about it. Now we seem to be having outright opposition in relation to that particular package. We certainly had outright opposition to the $42 billion stimulus package, which is helping infrastructure and jobs throughout Australia. What the Australian public see is a government prepared to do something and an opposition that is only going to sit on its hands, carp and try and make cheap political points. I commend these bills to the House.