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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1554

Senator SCULLION (Leader of the Nationals in the Senate) (6:17 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

I rise to make some comments in regard to the ministerial statement on Regional Development Australia. I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government for recognising regional Australia through his statement. I am particularly pleased the government will be continuing with the process of the area consultative committee network, even though I concede it is getting—as with many things when government changes—a name change.

It should be pointed out that the area consultative committee network has done an absolutely outstanding job, particularly in developing a network across all of the areas that it covers. They have made an outstanding contribution to the development of regional Australia, particularly through prioritising. Everybody understands there are never unlimited funds in government, and it is just fantastic to see a process where people will, from a grassroots level, identify those programs and projects that are closest to the hearts of those communities.

I am concerned, as I am sure are many senators, that the area consultative committees not be allowed to go into some sort of hibernation mode while the interim arrangements, consultations and reviews are taking place. I understand that the circumstances at the moment are that the area consultative committees, or parts of them, will remain in place until December 2008. As I said, certainly many senators on this side are concerned that the work that they do continues. It is absolutely vital that their work continues.

The reason that we are a little concerned is that, I understand, no projects have received funding since the government took office. When projects are approved applicants are notified of the success of the proposal. Disturbingly, their actually entering into contractual discussions with the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government has been put on hold. Communities have an expectation that there is going to some sort of outcome. There are obviously contractors and people within those communities that are putting their best foot forward for some of the work and some of the funding. People have an expectation that proposals they have worked so hard for are in fact going to be funded.

We always look for signs in a new government, and the fact that they have been put on hold is hardly a sign of a committed government—one who stops all progress for nearly six months. Time and effort, and in many cases significant funding, have already been put into getting these proposals up and ready. Again, because of the commitment of the ACCs and all of their staff and the significant effort that has been put in by entire communities, it is simply unfair of the Rudd government to keep these people hanging around for some sort of answer whilst it continues to conduct another review.

The minister has stated that the message to regional communities is clear. This is one of the key statements: ‘This government will work with you to make your solutions work.’ Predictably, Labor’s actions again appear to have fallen well short of their rhetoric—just another example of the government being prepared to say whatever they need to say to get elected. But it seems that when the rubber hits the road there is not a lot of traction. Perhaps we should have taken slightly more seriously the fairly prophetic remarks of the member for Kingsford Smith during the election that once Labor won and got in they were just going to change everything.

Already the Minister for Finance and Deregulation has gutted Regional Partnerships by announcing that the government will be cutting the coalition’s Growing Regions program by $145 million. The Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Development and Northern Australia, Gary Gray, has been telling people that the government will be further slashing the Regional Partnerships program tonight, and we will be watching very carefully. It is vital that the new Regional Development Australia network is adequately funded; otherwise it is in danger of becoming nothing else but a rubber stamp.

I notice that regional Australia was a government pre-election commitment, and I remind the house of another pre-election commitment made by the then Leader of the Opposition in Perth on Friday, 16 November, in relation to the approvals process of the Regional Partnerships program. The Prime Minister, then as Leader of the Opposition, was asked in an interview:

Mr Rudd, can you explain your position on how you would administer the Regional Partnerships Program? Surely if you’re really serious about total independence you’d take it right out of the hands of a minister and the minister has no say in it?

And today’s Prime Minister said:

... it must pass through three stages—

he was very clear about this and he is a very articulate individual, and I will commend him for making this so clear—

Number one: for anything to be considered by us under this program, it would need to have the endorsement of either a) the local council; b) the local area consultative committee; or c) the State government.

No problems. He went on to say:

Secondly, it would need to form part of that community’s local economic or community infrastructure ...

Fair enough. He went on to say:

... and thirdly it would then need to pass the departmental seal of approval in order for it to proceed.

The obvious question from the journalist:

So ministers wouldn’t be able to overturn the recommendations of the department, is that what you’re saying?

The Prime Minister said:

According to the three stage process I’ve outlined, absolutely.

So he has ruled that out completely. We there have, prior to the election, the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister, categorically saying that he will make sure that the department is the final arbiter of Regional Partnerships—in effect, that ministers are not going to interfere in this stuff at all and those processes will be adhered to.

I do not understand how it is then, given the Prime Minister has said the department is the final arbiter of these programs, that the $2.6 million dead tree project at Barcaldine is going to be funded. That is right: the pet project from those on the other side, the Tree of Knowledge, a project which I understand was rejected by the minister’s department, is now going to be funded against departmental advice. That involves the second undertaking of that little tranche of undertakings—that it would be the department only; ministers would not intervene. But I will take you to the second part—and I am not sure about this; perhaps it is for the house to decide—which is that this dead tree would need to form part of that community’s local, economic or community infrastructure. Perhaps I do not know enough about that particular tree, but I would have thought that was a fairly tenuous grasp of the second aspect.

Senator McLucas —We’ll bump up the Labor vote there!

Senator SCULLION —We have got interjections from the other side: something about bumping up the Labor vote. I will not take that interjection because perhaps I will get the sway of it wrong. Perhaps the other side need to recognise that there are a number of people who are confused by this matter and perhaps they could explain it to the members of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, who are patiently waiting for notification of whether this government is going to match the $600,000 that they have raised themselves to fit out a medical centre to expand this vital service to rural and regional Australia. So we have got a problem: we have got a Labor Tree of Knowledge and we have got people in the outback. Suddenly, one of these projects manages to push through all the processes and gets through.

It is going to be absolutely pointless, if we have a new Regional Development Australia board and a network, if the ideas and advice are never implemented. It does not matter that we have again had: ‘Core election promises will never be broken’—that has been shattered on a number of issues. But, clearly, we have an evidentiary trail to say that the Prime Minister was not fair dinkum when he said, ‘I’m going to stick to this promise.’ It was some other sort of promise, but let us leave all that aside. This is not going to work if the advice and the ideas are never going to be implemented, simply because we do not recognise the importance of rural and regional Australia. It is the boiler room of the economy of Australia, and we need to ensure that funding is adequate, timely and in response to a whole suite of advice that can only be provided through the area consultative committee network.

It is absolutely essential that the network survives with the new government—I recognise that these things change. This has been an outstanding program that was put in place by the previous government and, over a great deal of time, it has improved the worth of those people in rural and regional Australia. So, despite the duplicity of the Prime Minister and those opposite in terms of the election promise, we support the broad intent of the government’s plans for Regional Development Australia. Whilst not completely endorsing it, we are looking forward very much to some of the details later on.

Question agreed to.