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Monday, 23 June 2003
Page: 17260

Mr ZAHRA (8:31 PM) —I rise to speak on the Taxation Laws Amendment Bill (No. 5) 2003. It is important that we in this chamber never lose sight of the basic fact that, when we talk about taxation, we are talking about people's salaries and how much they contribute to the services that they get in return for paying that tax. It seems to me that this is a fact that is often lost on people on the other side. But we on this side of the House have never lost sight of the fact that, when people pay tax, they expect to get good services. People in my electorate expect good services. There might not be too many millionaires in my electorate and we might not be rich people, but we pay our fair share and we pay the taxes that the Commonwealth requires us to pay. We do that cheerfully and we do it with the expectation that we are going to get decent services, but under the Howard government we have been bitterly disappointed.

I will take you back a few years—not that long ago but a long time ago in terms of the people in my electorate—to 1996 when this government got elected. We in my electorate all remember that horrible first budget of the Howard government, when so many of the basic services that people in my electorate had come to expect from government—ser-vices they had contributed to in terms of the taxation revenue of this country and which they expected would continue—were taken away from them. In my electorate, one of those services included funding for the Family Research Centre of Morwell. Around 80 or 100 jobs were lost from Monash University's Gippsland campus at Churchill, there were a lot of jobs lost from TAFE, and Telstra reduced its regional work force in Gippsland by about 80—and so it goes on. We lost a lot of jobs and we lost a lot of services, but we continue to pay the same amount of tax—and with the introduction of the goods and services tax we pay even more tax.

The reasonable expectation that you might have is if you pay more tax you get more service. That is not an unreasonable thing for people in the community to imagine. But that has not proved to be the case in the electorate of McMillan or in the Gippsland region more generally. I will make an important point about some of the key services that people expect to receive when they pay tax. There is probably nothing more basic, nothing more immediate and nothing more important to people in my electorate—and I think to people in the country more generally—than having access to decent health services. Unfortunately, we have seen a reduction in the Commonwealth contribution to health services in the electorate of McMillan and the Gippsland region more generally, and bulk-billing in the Gippsland region continues to decline.

I noticed some statistics released late last week show that the Gippsland region now has a GP bulk-billing rate of 46.7 per cent—less than half. Less than half of the medical consultations in the Gippsland region are bulk-billed. If you drive around the electorate of McMillan and the Gippsland region more generally, you will be very hard-pressed to come across a bulk-billing clinic or a bulk-billing medical centre. There are not many of those medical centres in the Gippsland region or the electorate of McMillan.

This stands in sharp contrast to the range of services that people get in and around Melbourne, in and around Sydney and in and around some of the other big cities in this country. Those people pay about the same amount of tax as those in the electorate of McMillan pay but they have access to a greater range of services. They are able to enjoy access to bulk-billing, which people in the Gippsland region are not able to enjoy. That is not a fair situation and does not reflect the ordinary rules of fairness, decency and proportionality that you would expect to apply in relation to things like taxation and service delivery. We in the Gippsland region pay the same amount of tax as other people in the country and we should be able to enjoy the same level of service as other people get in the towns and cities in which they live.

We in the Gippsland region also expect to have critical infrastructure issues addressed by the Commonwealth government. It is not an unreasonable expectation to want to have these critical infrastructure projects funded in the same way as critical infrastructure projects are funded in other places in Australia. We in the Gippsland region think that those projects which are important to us and which require a substantial amount of Commonwealth funding should also be committed to.

I know that as a Victorian, Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, you would be well aware of the issues relating to the Princes Highway East and the Pakenham district. It is recognised in the Commonwealth government's budget papers that the Princes Highway through the Pakenham district is Victoria's worst crash zone. Yet, when it comes to making a contribution to this important project, the Commonwealth falls short of honouring its commitment to fund half of the cost of the Pakenham bypass. Instead of funding half, which is $121 million, the Commonwealth—through a bit of trickery; a bit of carry on with words—says that it only meant to commit to $100 million, which leaves the $242 million cost of the Pakenham bypass $21 million short. As people in Pakenham have said to me, `What is the good of holding up a $242 million project for the sake of the last 10 per cent? This is crazy talk.'

The reason that this project is getting held up lies with the Commonwealth government. It is responsible for spiking this project, for making the people in the Pakenham district and the Gippsland region put up with the full force of the Princes Highway going right through the guts of Pakenham. It creates an absolutely outrageous road safety risk to the people in the Gippsland region and in the Pakenham district. So what we say in the Gippsland region and in Pakenham to the Howard government is simply this: honour your promise; honour the promise you made us, do what you said, stop your carry-on and get on with the project.

One of the other issues important to us in the Gippsland region is a smaller one that relates to the beautiful township of Korumburra. As a Victorian, Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, I know that you would be very familiar with Korumburra. It is a historically im-portant town and has a population of around 5,000 people. They are very industrious people in Korumburra; they are hard-working people who do not make a big song and dance about things. They do not ask for more than what they are entitled to and all they are asking for from the Commonwealth gov-ernment is to have the Korumburra drill hall for community use. This drill hall is now surplus to Department of Defence's requirements.

You might say to me, Mr Deputy Speaker, that maybe this is a piece of infrastructure that could cost some millions of dollars, which would then have to be forgone by the Commonwealth government. But the Korumburra drill hall would probably be worth between $50,000 and $100,000 to the Commonwealth if it sold it. Now $50,000 or $100,000 is not much to a big Commonwealth government which receives billions of dollars in revenue every year, but to the people of Korumburra it is a lot of money and to the people who live in the south Gippsland shire that is more money than they should be expected to pay. What we are asking for in Korumburra is not unreasonable. We are just asking for that surplus defence department drill hall to be handed over for community use so that the people of Korumburra can use it as part of their recreational precinct.

I know that the Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence is at the table and I know that she has an interest in community matters. I ask Minister Vale if she would be good enough to investigate whether or not there was any way that the drill hall could be handed over to the people of Korumburra through the South Gippsland Shire Council for community and recreational purposes. Minister, this is no more than what has happened in Adelaide where the Torrens parade ground—probably worth around $5 million—has been handed over to the community. This is no more than what has happened at Fremantle where the Fremantle army barracks—probably worth $10 million—has been handed over to the Fremantle community. I do not think this is too different, either, from what the Prime Minister did in his own electorate where he handed over some ex-Department of Defence land to the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Trust for community use. If it is good enough for Sydney, Adelaide and beautiful Fremantle, it should be good enough for the people of South Gippsland and in particular for the people of Korumburra.

When the federal government shut down Defence Force recruiting out of that drill hall, the people in Korumburra did not kick up a big stink. They did not engage in a lot of carry on or a lot of moaning and complaining about that. They just took it in their stride and sought to try and turn an unfortunate circumstance into an opportunity for their community. They have shown a fair bit of decency in the way that they have approached this and all I ask is that the federal government shows a bit of decency back to them. So Minister Vale if you could please have a look into that matter and get back to me, I would be happy to pass on your response to the South Gippsland shire and the people of Korumburra. It is not much we are asking for—I know it is only a small amount of money to the Commonwealth government—but it is an important issue to the people of Korumburra, and the Howard government should do the right thing by them.

I know that you are a Victorian member, Mr Deputy Speaker Jenkins, and that you represent a constituency not too dissimilar from mine in many respects. I know that your constituency from time to time has had to grapple with the issue of unemployment and, in particular, long-term unemployment. Certainly parts of my electorate have struggled with those same issues and, unfortunately, some parts of my electorate still are. There is an article—which I am sure you have read, Mr Deputy Speaker—in the Age today which deals with some of the issues to do with hot spots of unemployment in the Victorian community.

I think at least some of the areas in your electorate, Mr Deputy Speaker, are mentioned. I am pleased to report that, in general terms, they are mentioned fairly favourably. I am not sure exactly where the boundary of your electorate is—whether you have Eltham or whether it is in the member for Jagajaga's electorate—but certainly Eltham is mentioned favourably as having a very low unemployment rate of 1.7 per cent. To the people in Eltham we say congratulations on your low unemployment; well done. We congratulate you on being able to achieve that low rate of unemployment. It is certainly not a rate of unemployment that Eltham has always enjoyed.

From my viewpoint as the member for McMillan, more alarming is the fact that the townships of Morwell and Moe still have among the state's highest levels of unemployment. Morwell has an unemployment rate of around 12 per cent and Moe has an unemployment rate of 11.4 per cent. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I am very proud to be a Latrobe Valley boy. I am very proud of my background in the Latrobe Valley and I am very proud to represent those people in this place. But the fact is that unemployment is too high in the Latrobe Valley region. I copped criticism, when I started off as the member for McMillan, for talking about unemployment in our district. People said to me, `Christian, you're talking the area down. You've got to not talk about these things, because it puts people off.' I took a different view: that you had to talk about the problems that you faced, and talk about them honestly, if something was to be done.

I think that a fair bit of that talking about the serious problems that we had in the Latrobe Valley led to the establishment—as you as a Victorian would be aware, Mr Deputy Speaker—of the Latrobe Valley Ministerial Task Force. It was established by the Bracks Labor government and it led to a package of around $106 million to rejuvenate the Latrobe Valley and help reduce unemployment. Those measures are working; they are reducing unemployment in the Latrobe Valley region. To my good friend Steve Bracks and to other friends in the state government, on behalf of the people of the Latrobe Valley, thank you for believing in us, supporting us and contributing substantially to the recovery of our region.

But more needs to be done, and it must not fall just to the state government to assist in this effort. By comparison to the $106 million package that was in the Latrobe Valley Ministerial Task Force's package for the Latrobe Valley district, the federal government put in a weak program called Sustainable Regions, which consisted of a miserly $12 million over three years—$4 million per year for three years. On the one hand there is the great big Commonwealth government, which put in $4 million per year for three years; on the other hand there is a state government, which put in $106 million. The difference could not be more stark. It really underscores the level of commitment that the state government has, compared to the commitment—or, rather, lack of commitment—the Commonwealth government has to the people of the Latrobe Valley.

The one undeniable thing about the Sustainable Regions program is that it is a one-size-fits-all program. There is pretty much the same amount of money for every region in which one of these programs has been established. There is not much money to start with, and the program does not allocate resources to those areas that are most in need in terms of employment. So, in the Gippsland region, for example, from that miserable $4 million per year over three years there was no emphasis on those areas with the greatest levels of unemployment, like Morwell and Moe.

That is why a substantial opportunity has gone begging here in terms of breaking the back of unemployment in those big towns. It would have been great if the federal government had said, `We're going to put the money for the Sustainable Regions program that was set for the Gippsland region into those areas of highest unemployment.' That would have meant that all of that money would have gone to the Latrobe Valley. Small though that amount of money was, I think that if you added $4 million per year to the money going to the Latrobe Valley, particularly Morwell and Moe, you might have seen a substantial reduction in the level of unemployment.

But the government did not do that; they allowed the Sustainable Regions program to be applied right across the Gippsland region, in that time-honoured National Party way of using it as a pork barrel. So it was a little bit here, a little bit there, wheel it out into some of these communities, $100,000 here, $20,000 there for a study, $150,000 somewhere else, and so it goes. The impact of that small program was almost worth nothing in the areas where it mattered most; namely, the towns of Morwell and Moe.

I say to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that the contribution of the Commonwealth government—that $4 million per year for three years—pales into insignificance when you consider what federal Labor's commitment was to the electorate of McMillan at the last federal election. We committed $30 million to the Latrobe Valley to create jobs and employment opportunities. We undertook to declare the Latrobe Valley an education priority zone, which would have meant an extra $4 million per year for three years. We also made a genuine commitment to the building of the Pakenham bypass, a project worth more than $100 million.

Federal Labor has always been committed to the people who live in the electorate of McMillan and state Labor has always been committed to the people who live in the electorate of McMillan. We only wish that the Howard government would not muck around with us; would not promise us things and then fail to deliver, as it has done in the Pakenham bypass instance; and would actually commit to helping our local community to break the back of unemployment in our district. (Time expired)