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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 84

Senator BOLKUS (3:13 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by ministers to questions without notice asked today.

I particularly would like to go to the answer provided by Senator Ian Macdonald and the supplementary answer provided just a few minutes ago. On 11 January South Australians, particularly those on the Eyre Peninsula, experienced the state’s worst natural disaster since Ash Wednesday some 20 years ago. You would have thought that, in the interim, governments at all levels would have been engaged in their plight in an endeavour to better facilitate their responses to them. We have seen a bipartisan response from the state government and from local members at a state level.

What we saw today and yesterday from the federal government was a minister with responsibility in the area but with no real knowledge of the plight of those people who have been affected and no real knowledge of what is needed at the federal government level. We had rhetoric, but we have not had federal ministerial involvement in this particular natural disaster, one of the biggest in the state’s history. He showed no idea of the issue in question time today, and in the supplementary answer all he has done is confirmed the ridiculous nature of the federal government’s response. If you are an individual resident and you get a grant then you are not taxed. If you are a business you are taxed. If you are a business and you get the grant from a charity then you are not taxed. If you are a business and you get the grant from government then you are taxed.

Saying that you can claim a tax deduction for what you purchase gives no joy to the people involved. Their needs are immediate and their expenditure is immediate. A lot of the expenditure that they will incur will be for plant and equipment which, for tax deductibility, works on a depreciation schedule. Many of the tax deductible items will not materialise in the hands of the farmers for quite some time. This is the ridiculous situation that I raised in question time. This is a situation that the government has not been on top of and farmers on the Eyre Peninsula on west coast of South Australia are concerned about it.

In this particular instance, high-level engagement was needed. There was engagement by the South Australian state government. They sent ministers and staff over there. They have worked with the community and put programs in place. But, up until a few minutes ago, the request for assistance with the reconstruction contained in a letter which was sent from Premier Rann to the Prime Minister on 11 January had not been responded to. Almost four weeks later we still have not seen a written response from the Prime Minister. That request to assist with the reconstruction has fallen on deaf ears. Six million dollars was incurred by the South Australian government. We were told today that, up until now, Centrelink has expended $285,000. That, together with the cost of the defence minister’s visit of one hour or so to the peninsula, is about the only cost incurred by the federal government in this matter.

A much faster reaction was needed from the Prime Minister and ministers. That did not happen. On top of that $6 million fiasco, there was a request for the Army Reserve. The Army Reserve are there now doing a good job. But, Minister Hill, they got there on the Sunday evening and they were not able to engage until the Wednesday morning, because there was a demand for a $100 million indemnity guarantee on the state government. It took two days—two vital days in reconstruction—to sort that out. We should have a system in place, not just for this instance but also for the future, where those sorts of impediments and red tape do not hamper reconstruction efforts.

As well as that, yesterday and today the minister claimed that federal government assistance knows no bounds. Their demand for money knows no bounds. They sent over the Army Reserve to do a good job and then Senator Hill went over there with a bill for $60,000 a week. Opposition leader Beazley raised the matter a week or so ago. It has been raised by the state government of South Australia. You would have thought that by now they would have desisted from that demand. That has not happened either.

As I said earlier, compensation will be taxed. These are four areas and four critical decision-making opportunities for the federal government. In each particular one, what we see is a pattern of disinterest and neglect, and no engagement by federal government ministers. The bureaucrats are doing a great job on their own. They have to work within the programs’ limits and processes. But what is needed here is engagement by the federal government. We have not seen it. The federal government, unfortunately for Labor, represents most of South Australia, but it is taking the state for granted. This federal government is taking South Australian residents, particularly those on the west coast of South Australia, for granted. Across the country people are engaging, assisting and contributing. People are going out of their way to help the people over there. But this federal government, which has the power, responsibilities and resources, has dropped the ball. (Time expired)