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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 6827

Mr FORREST (8:50 PM) —I rise in this grievance debate to raise several matters, time permitting. The first of these is the piping of the Wimmera Mallee stock and domestic system—a huge project entirely contained within the federal division of Mallee, which is well over 100 years of age now. It is the largest open-channel water supply system in the world. We are so close now to having it completely piped, with pumping and a much more efficient use of water. It is a scheme that wasted enough water in one year to fill Olympic swimming pools stacked end to end all the way from Melbourne to Darwin and back again. It served its purpose. It was an engineering achievement at its time, at the start of the century, and it took 60 years to build; but it badly needed to be piped.

Prior to the last election, it was decided that there was a need to complete the rest of the project, because it is quite comprehensive and covers one-third of the geographic area of Victoria, and that a further $372 million was needed. The project has been funded in a three-way partnership, with the Commonwealth, the state government of Victoria and the community meeting a one-third cost share each. It was quite a significant issue in the 2007 election down our way, and I was quite pleased to have achieved a commitment from, at that stage, the pretenders to government—an announcement by the member for Grayndler, in his capacity as the shadow minister for infrastructure, to share the cost on a one-third basis for the completion works, and an announcement made that the Australian Labor Party would fund another $124 million. This was matched by the coalition parties. I said to my constituents: ‘We’ve got both options covered now. Please re-elect me to make sure either party honours its commitment.’

It was an enormous disappointment for me to discover, since the election, that the Commonwealth Labor government has sent down only $99 million and it sent a very strong message that it does not intend to fulfil its election promise. So we are still $25 million short. It uses the argument that the state government was willing to contribute only $99 million—why should the Commonwealth go further than that? I was so incensed by this broken election promise that I placed a question on the Notice Paper to the Prime Minister in May this year. He has had 38 days to respond to that and he has 22 more days. My constituents are burning to know whether this election commitment is going to be fulfilled by the Commonwealth government regardless of what the state’s position is.

It is a tremendous project that has sent an enormous signal of encouragement to my drought-stricken constituency, all of which has been covered under an exceptional circumstances declaration for the last four years and some of which has been covered for longer than that—up to five years. Water for stock and domestic purposes and firefighting purposes is a very critical issue. I am expecting the Prime Minister, who boasts boldly about committing to his election commitments, to send a signal to my constituency that he intends to honour that election commitment and come up with the balance still owing on that commitment of $25 million. Fire services costs have escalated threefold because of increasing expectations, and that $25 million would go a long way to assisting those local government councils, of which there are nine who have to meet that cost and find it through the resources of their struggling ratepayers.

There is also an irrigation region associated with the provincial city of Horsham that has had irrigation support for almost 100 years but, because of the challenges and issues with water and the reconfiguration of the channel system into pipes, there is a raging discussion now as to whether that irrigation district ought to be made obsolete. But whatever the outcome, whether or not there is some sort of adjustment to the irrigation district, it is going to need more finance. Certainly, compensation will be needed for those irrigators who have legal water entitlements which they pay for. The government waxes lyrical about the need for stimulation of the economy; well, there is $25 million that could be spent very quickly. The designs are all complete, job ready, and some of them are already under construction.

We had a very serious fire in the bottom end of my constituency. Although we say that we were fortunate there were no deaths associated with that, it was the most frightening fire the region has seen in a very long time, getting into the suburbs of the provincial city of Horsham. So I challenge the Prime Minister to recognise the significance of that question I put on the Notice Paper and to respond positively to it and send a message to my constituency that this is a Labor government that does care and does have the interests of western Victoria at heart.

The second point I wanted to make was just how significant the changes to Youth Allowance have been in my constituency. You can tell by the jamming of the switchboard and the numerical strength of the emails that this is a huge issue affecting thousands of potential university students across north-west Victoria—and other rural constituencies have felt the same. In fact, it is estimated that something like 30,000 potential tertiary students right across the nation have been affected by this shifting of the goalposts. After the plans they made, following their year 12 VCE qualification, to defer their university course for one year in order to accumulate some money to assist their parents to pay for their tertiary education, the goalposts have been shifted on them. They are now being told they are expected to work up to 30 hours a week prior to their university course, which would require them to engage in that work during their important year 11 and year 12 years, which are horrendous years for students today. I remember my own children going through those challenges. It is just completely unreasonable.

We have now got a Senate inquiry up to investigate the matter and get the concerns of some of these youngsters on paper as evidence to convince the government that it needs to make some adjustments to this policy position announced in the recent budget. Some of the intent of the budget announcement might have been a noble one, which was to ensure that youngsters who have the advantage of living in the big cities and can continue to live with their parents did not take advantage of the system, but that opportunity is not available to country kids. They have usually got to travel hundreds of miles to attend a metropolitan or provincial based university. And in these circumstances, where drought has taken an enormous toll on the finances of their parents, particularly if they are primary producers, this shift has enraged them completely.

As I say, there have been an enormous number of representations, and I am hoping that the findings of the Senate committee will assist in nudging the government to tweak this budget announcement so that country students are not substantially impacted. I heard the member for Throsby speaking earlier in the grievance debate about university opportunities, and the figures she mentioned for the participation rates of rural students are just deplorable in a nation that needs to encourage youngsters across the board, no matter where they live, to engage in tertiary education.

With regard to the children of the families that I represent, the expectation is that, because they have committed to rural lives, they will return with qualifications—whether they are in teaching, nursing, agriculture or business—and work in their local communities, because that is where they were born and raised and are used to a lifestyle they can enjoy. So the challenge will be for the government to respond to this need, and I am hoping that government members who represent rural constituencies will get in there and support the students they represent and convince the government it needs to change this policy, not shift the goalposts for desperate country families.