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Wednesday, 19 March 2008
Page: 1259

Senator BOSWELL (1:00 PM) —I rise with a heavy heart to inform the Senate of the negative and short-sighted policy decisions that the Rudd Labor government has pursued toward rural and regional Australia in its first 100 days. Regional Australia is indeed the biggest loser so far in the settling-in period of the Rudd Labor government.

Senator Forshaw —That’s why they lost the seat of Page!

Senator BOSWELL —I know, Senator Forshaw, you are sympathetic to this and in your heart of hearts you do have some sort of sympathy for rural Australia. I know you have got to control it—

Senator Forshaw interjecting—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Troeth)—Order! Senator Boswell, I would advise you not to respond to interjections.

Senator BOSWELL —In the short time Labor have been in power they have managed to find every hollow log they can to steal the hard-earned money that the previous coalition government committed to rural Australia, they have managed to tear down the institutions that are the final bastion of trade advantage to rural Australia, and they have increased the cost of transport in regional areas and in doing so legislated to encourage inflation through higher taxes and charges.

In the last month this parliament has seen the gutting of rural Australia and the services that the previous coalition government had put in place. The Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund is the first of many hollow logs that the Rudd government will call upon to find the cash to fund their expensive election promises. The loss of the Regional Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund, which guaranteed the absolute minimum of $2 billion to the future infrastructure needs of rural Australia, is a tragedy. The fund was set up to assure regional Australia that they would never fall behind as they did when the Keating government was in place. It was set up to make sure that they would be guaranteed an equal opportunity to access the latest communications technology, not just broadband but mobile telephone coverage, along with the infrastructure to provide these services—and any other services rural Australia did not have—to keep them up to speed. This was set up as a nation-building fund, an infrastructure fund, to ensure that all Australians could have the latest communications technology. It is a fund that was set up so that nobody was forgotten, even if they lived in the most remote corner of Australia.

The Nationals in government always made sure that the sale of national assets was not squandered in the short term by short-sighted governments. Instead, through the Future Fund the Nationals looked forward to the future requirements of all Australians, especially those who did not live in an area that had a highly competitive communications market. But within the space of four months we are already seeing a grab for cash by the Rudd government to fund their broadband policy—a broadband policy that, like a reverse Robin Hood, will take money from those in the bush and give it to those in the city.

But they have not stopped there with their cuts and cash grabs. Only yesterday we saw the Natural Heritage Trust and the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality rebadged as Caring for our Country, and with it came a funding cut. It was revealed that NHT programs would now receive only 60 per cent of their average historical funding. This long-awaited announcement is the Labor government’s answer to the Howard government’s highly successful Natural Heritage Trust and National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality—a $4.5 billion investment in the environment. The coalition’s solution was Australia’s biggest ever commitment to a sustainable future, but today we see that squandered with less money and less certainty for our delicate environment.

Caring for our Country is just a rebadging with less funding. As a result of this cut in funding, catchment management bodies that had been adapted to or had been set up specifically to deliver the NHT programs will only now receive 60 per cent of their average historical funding with the other 40 per cent potentially delivered on a competitive basis. This will present a serious challenge to the survival of many catchment bodies that are doing it tough. The Australian National Audit Office has already warned that 16 of these catchment authorities face insolvency, given the delay in this rebadged funding announcement by Labor.

The first 100 days will also go down in the history of this nation as the time when the great institutions of rural Australia were cut down by the Rudd Labor government. Labor’s policy of deregulation of the wheat industry and the loss of the single desk selling arrangements will throw an industry to the wolves of the international market. Thousands of wheat growers across Australia face the most radical overhaul of their industry structure in Australian history. They face the dismantling of over 60 years of a marketing system that was built around them and for them. Wheat growers who sow their crops today do not know what tomorrow will bring. They will no longer have a buyer of last resort to purchase their wheat. They will no longer have a national pool or an estimated pool return, which their bankers rely on, to fund cropping and harvesting options. They will not know whether they will get paid for their wheat when they do sell. They will not know whether to build storage facilities, whether their buyers will be able to transport their wheat to a port or whether there will be a ship to take it to market. They will not know how to be players in an international market characterised by foreign subsidies and sophisticated financial instruments—and one-desk buyers. They no longer have any say in a market dominated by international multinational corporations responsible to their shareholders. Australian wheat growers no longer face a market where they command a guaranteed quality premium. They will be picked off by large grain traders and experience larger price fluctuations and lower returns than they have experienced in generations. The impact of all this will be a marked increase of instability to the wheat industry in Australia. That means that thousands of growers and their families, suppliers and local communities face a future of uncertainty and greatly increased risk to their livelihoods.

Not only have the Rudd Labor government destroyed the fundamental fabric that has held together the wheat industry but they have also cut the programs that supported agriculture. The FarmBis program: $24 million cut in the blink of an eye. This coalition government program had assisted over 165,000 farmers, fishers and land managers to undertake business management, education and training. The training that was allowed under this program included financial management, marketing, natural resource management, production management, people management and general business management. So much for the education revolution—it obviously does not apply to hard-working families in rural Australia. The basis of this program was to boost the productivity of rural industry. However, now this program is lost to the annals of history, as is the AAA, Agriculture Advancing Australia, program: a cut of $26.2 million. This coalition program assisted over 35 industries with measures to assist their profitability and helped more than 700 people, including women, young people and Indigenous Australians, to gain skills so that they could contribute to their industry’s future as one of the decision makers. What a short-sighted view the Rudd Labor government must have to slash capacity building programs such as these.

But they did not stop there. The slashing continued when they cut $47.7 million from the Agricultural and Horticultural Australian Apprenticeships program. This coalition program provided practical assistance to apprentices who were just starting out in the workforce. It enabled them to purchase a tool kit valued at up to $800 and also contributed $1,000 to any training fees they had to pay. It really disappoints me that the Rudd Labor government would take the tool kits out of the hands of these new apprentices. It is a disappointing reaction to the current skills crisis that Australia finds itself in, and the Prime Minister and his colleagues have pointed out in many different ways that these problems are real. If they are real, I wish they would recognise them for rural Australia.

One wonders what other bright ideas they will come up with to help apprentices. They cut the living away from home allowance, a coalition government program that assisted apprentices if they had to move away from home for training. They cut funding from a program that encouraged apprentices to attend training programs away from their homes. These cuts are directed squarely towards apprentices from rural areas. These cuts affect directly those apprentices who would be more likely to travel back to rural areas to work in regional communities and strengthen the skills base in our regions, because that is where they have come from originally. But, no, the first 100 days of the Rudd government have sent signals to the regions that this government does not care about their wellbeing, does not care about their workforce and, unfortunately, does not care about the infrastructure that keeps these centres strong. This lack of foresight towards skills development in the regions has the potential to snowball and affect the future productivity of rural Australia.

The government do not care about regional Australia and they never have. They have started to dither about the funding programs directed towards building regional infrastructure. We were told in Senate estimates that the recipients of 116 Regional Partnerships approvals have been left in limbo while the federal government bumbles around working out administrative arrangements. Whether this situation has changed we cannot be sure, but I would urge the minister to rethink the current position and guarantee the funding of these vital projects. The projects being held up are not subject to scrutiny by any external body; they are just being held up because of Labor’s new red tape called administrative arrangements. The flow-on effects to the regional economy will be a disaster to small businesses and local communities if the indecision we have seen on regional partnerships funding continues.

The first 100 days of the Rudd Labor government will also go down as the time when legislation was introduced to increase the cost of transport in Australia. The increase in registration costs and the imposition of higher fuel taxes on truck drivers, from 19.6c to 21c per litre, can only increase the cost of transport in Australia. That is something where the coalition fought time and time again against some of the states who wanted to take these increases up. We realised that the CPI would be affected, and at the first meeting of the transport ministers the federal government gave up. These increased costs will not be worn by the industry but will be immediately passed on to the Australian consumer. The tax rise on the trucking industry will be an extra slug of 1.37c per litre on fuel from 1 January 2009 and an increase in registration charges for 69 per cent of the nation’s heavy vehicles. Even more disturbing is the decision by Labor to index this fuel tax—an approach first introduced by the Keating Labor government and abandoned by the coalition in 2001.

As Glenn Milne wrote this week, it:

... puts excise back on the inflation escalator, on fast forward. Because the index used is likely to be measured using something known as the Road Construction Index, usually substantially higher than the Consumer Price Index.

... It is the first time fuel excise has been indexed for seven years. It is a new petrol tax.

So much for keeping inflation down and so much for keeping grocery prices down—the Rudd government just slugs any moving target. The follow-on effects of this Rudd Labor government policy will be felt throughout the economy with upward pressure on grocery prices. Transport costs contribute to more than five per cent of grocery retail prices and 5.5 per cent to six per cent in regional areas. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported the cost of transport rose by 5.6 per cent between December 2006 and 2007 with the most significant increases in transportation costs due to the price rise of fuel. Transport is part of the mix of indicators that contribute to the level of the consumer price index and therefore this rise in tax leads to higher inflation.

In summary, the signs from the first 100 days of the Rudd Labor government are not good for rural Australia. The hollow logs that the coalition government filled with money for future infrastructure have been raided. The costs of transport and services have been increased and support programs for agriculture have been cut. (Time expired)