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Thursday, 14 February 2008
Page: 323

Mr TRUSS (Leader of the Nationals) (10:13 AM) —The Governor-General in his address to the parliament at the beginning of this week commented on the change of government and said ‘how fortunate we are to live in a nation where governments change hands peacefully as a result of the free expression of the will of the people’. The smooth transition that there has been from the previous government to the new government, largely without great bitterness within the electorate, is indeed a tribute to our traditions and our democracy.

As a member of the outgoing government, I cannot say it was a period without pain. There was the disappointment, naturally, of having to say farewell to faithful staff, of meeting for the final time departmental officers who had served the government faithfully with fearless advice and assistance over the years, and of the knowledge that many of the people who had worked for the previous government would no longer have employment—all of those sorts of things were sad.

At the outset, I take the opportunity to thank my own personal staff, who made my role as a minister much more pleasant, enabled us to achieve some very worthwhile things and ensured that the government was also able to achieve worthwhile objectives for Australians. But there is a new government, and I congratulate them on their election.

There is a situation in Australia at present where, for the first time in our history, Labor is in government in every state, in every territory, and now in the Commonwealth. That of itself gives me concerns, because the absence of checks and balances is indeed a potential threat to our democracy. If Labor abuses its position of absolute power then the comments of the Governor-General about peaceful transition and the way in which we as a country go about changing our governments would indeed be at threat.

Labor has a particular responsibility, in view of its all-powerful position, to ensure that it consults effectively with the community and to ensure that it listens—that it does not just hand-pick an audience to receive an address from the Prime Minister and a few cabinet ministers, that when it chooses advisory committees it does not just choose the old Labor faithful but in fact obtains advice from people with alternative views. It will be particularly important with the sorts of issues that are potentially divisive in the community that it recognises that Labor comes from a particularly narrow base at the present time: 70 per cent of the frontbench are trade union officials. Labor is not just influenced by the trade union movement—it is a wholly owned subsidiary.

Substantial funding for Labor campaigns come from the trade union movement, yet only a handful of Australia’s workers are actually in the trade union movement, and it has been steadily dying over the years. It has a disproportionate representation within the policy-making processes of the Labor Party, whatever they might be, and certainly expects to be very powerful within the new government.

In this context I also refer to the funding imbalance that is becoming apparent in the electoral process around Australia at present. In state election campaigns, Labor can be expected to spend six, eight or 10 times the amount that its opponents are able to muster. In the last federal election, whilst the coalition and Labor spent broadly the same amount of money, there was a new player in the field—the trade union movement—that spent more than everybody put together. Our democracy, referred to so generously and accurately by the Governor-General in his speech, can in fact be put at threat if there is not a strong and healthy opposition and that opposition does not have the resources to be able to effectively question the government when issues arise. So there will be a close observance about the way in which Labor uses its absolute power.

There are concerns in the community that those interests that are legitimate and contributing to our country but are not highly thought of by the trade union movement and Labor will lose out. That will be damaging to our country. Labor and its newly elected members need to heed the advice that I think most of us are given when we arrive in this place: not all wisdom sits on the one side of the parliament. Useful contributions can be made by both sides. It is important that we seek to work constructively. Our government has accepted the judgement of the people. We acknowledge that there has been a change. We want the new government to govern in the interests of our country. I hope that they will be prepared to listen to the views of others when significant issues arise.

From a personal perspective, I thank the people of Wide Bay for returning me as the member for their area. It was a challenging campaign, but I am pleased and grateful to the people of my electorate for entrusting me with their confidence. My electorate was substantially changed. I particularly acknowledge the support received from the people of Noosa and district, who were added to my electorate this time. They did not want to be in the electorate of Wide Bay. It is a part of the Sunshine Coast. People of Hervey Bay that were moved out of my electorate into Hinkler did not want to be taken away.

We had a pretty dreadful redistribution in Queensland this time. I am not saying that it was particularly politically balanced—it was not. All Queensland members can draw attention to the ridiculous lines that were drawn on the maps. Almost every coastal city is split in two for no logical reason. That makes it very difficult for people to identify with their local member. Why were one or two suburbs taken out of Maryborough and put in an electorate with Bundaberg? Why was a bit of Bundaberg put into an electorate with Gladstone and, for that matter, with Longreach? It is just not logical. This was, frankly, the poorest redistribution I have ever seen. In the redistribution that comes up in Queensland again in the next couple of years, I hope that there will be a correction and that some of these illogical boundaries will be properly aligned.

In my own electorate, whilst my result was better than in most places, I really should have got every vote, because there were so many issues in the electorate where people were being very critical of Labor. I have three headline issues that particularly affected my electorate. The first was Labor’s local government amalgamations, forcibly amalgamating councils throughout Queensland into mega regional governments.

Ms Roxon interjecting

Mr TRUSS —Your leader, Mr Rudd, opposed what the Queensland government did before the election. Since the election he has done absolutely nothing to stop it. It was one thing before the election and another thing after the election. It is a classic example of Labor ‘me-tooing’ before the election but, when they get into office, doing absolutely nothing. In fact, Mr Rudd had form on this issue, because when he was helping to run Queensland he forcibly amalgamated other councils against their will. But this time we had referenda across the state: 85 referenda, jointly supported by both sides of the House.

The results of those referenda were absolutely overwhelming. Only in one council was there a vote for a merger, and that was only by about 0.1 per cent. In more than 10 local authorities there were fewer than 10 votes in favour—everybody else against. In one electorate there was only one favourable vote. In my own electorate, every referendum was overwhelmingly defeated, and yet the state Labor government has done nothing. Where is the Prime Minister now? Has he yet spoken to the Queensland Premier to respect the democratic wishes of the people and to make sure that he winds back this amalgamation process before it is too late?

The second major issue in my electorate is Labor’s plan to build a dam on the Mary River. I welcome the presence of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts at the table and I recognise that he will soon have to make a very important decision on this issue. I have welcomed his offer to come to my electorate, and I hope that he will do that, and I hope that he can make a decision in a genuinely bipartisan way based on the facts. I certainly offer to host him so that he can see what needs to be seen.

This is a devastating proposal for my electorate. It will flood something like 900 farms and private homes. It will be a multibillion dollar proposal. It has been imposed on the region against all engineering and scientific advice. There have been many reports on dam sites for Queensland; this one has always been rejected. It was rejected by previous Labor governments. It has been rejected by previous coalition governments. It does not stack up economically, it does not stack up socially and it does not stack up environmentally.

Brisbane is short of water. It is short of water because of the decision of the previous Labor government to abandon a dam proposal at Wolffdene, which would have been full through all this drought and left Brisbane people with little or no water restrictions. It would have been in a catchment area that has had generous rainfall and would have effectively resolved Brisbane’s water problems, but they did not build it. This neglect has resulted in Brisbane having a water crisis.

The government is building a desalination plant at Tugun, which I believe is a significant part of the answer to Brisbane’s water problems. It can do more in relation to recycling. It can build extra desalination plants. The dam will cost far more than many of the alternatives. It will mean Brisbane people will pay more for their water than they need to. If they had a desalination plant, it could be working and operational the day it is completed. A dam may wait years to be filled. The dam will not always have water in it when it is needed, so it will be an unreliable source of water. There will be a huge energy cost in pumping the water to Brisbane. It will be environmentally unsound and the government is already talking about acquiring large parcels of land to plant trees to try and make up for some of the greenhouse gas emissions that will result from this dam construction.

One of the key issues that the minister will need to consider is the dam’s impact on the environment. There are a number of truly remarkable species in this river that are not found anywhere else in the world. The lungfish is one of the only fish in the world, and the only one in Australia, that has lungs. It is an ancient species and it is thought that lungfish may be 30 or 40 years old before they breed and live perhaps as long as 100 years. It is a remarkable species because it is found only in a couple of other places in the world, and then in very small numbers. Then there is the Mary River turtle, which is another remarkable species because it is a turtle with gills, something that is also very rare in the world. So we need to make sure that the environment and the habitat for these species is protected, along with the Mary River cod, which is of course in no other river than the Mary. It is important for the future of the environment that these species be protected.

The minister will be receiving thousands of submissions from local people and the environmental movement unanimously condemning this proposal. It simply does not stack up on economic grounds, but unfortunately the federal government cannot intervene in that regard. That is just another bad decision by the Queensland state government. But we can intervene on environmental grounds and the environmental arguments are very, very powerful.

The third issue in my electorate that I want to refer to is the Bruce Highway. This is a dreadfully accident-prone section, rated the worst piece of the highway in Australia by road reports. There have been 34 fatal accidents over the last few years on the sections in my electorate. Before the last federal election, we promised to spend $800 million to extend the four lanes north from Cooroy so that some of these really serious accident-prone sections could be eliminated. There is no question that this is the worst accident stretch on the highway. There is no argument about that. That is simply a statement of fact agreed by state and federal governments. The $800 million would have made a significant difference. It is appalling that in the election campaign the federal Labor Party promised to take $500 million of that money away from the most accident-prone section of the highway. There have been several more fatal accidents on this section since the election and yet the Australian government, the Labor government, wants to take $500 million off this road.

The government is talking about an infrastructure led battle on inflation. That is economic nonsense in the short term. If you are serious about building infrastructure, surely you would deal with an accident-prone section carrying very heavy volumes of traffic that feeds the entire Queensland coastline. This must be a priority, and I appeal to the government to reconsider its announcement and to ensure that this road is returned to its proper priority.

The change of government will obviously result in changes of policy, but there can also be no doubt that Australia is very much stronger, more prosperous and more secure as a nation as a result of the 11 years of coalition government. In my own electorate of Wide Bay, unemployment has dropped to the lowest level that anyone can recall. We have had incomes growing and Australian government services are very much better than those we inherited in 1996. My job will be to make sure that the Rudd government does not upset the momentum of sustained growth built by the coalition government over these years.

I am concerned that the Labor government has been elected without any clear plan. It has lots of empty cliches and proposals which, at best, have been vague. We hear about an education revolution, but what is it—closing down the Investing in Our Schools Program and putting computers in schools, many of which already have a computer system? Those sorts of things do not make an education revolution. It talks about ideas to manage the economy, but clearly it has not got any of its own. There has been an economic ineptitude which has been quite staggering. Indeed, Labor, elected after 11 years in opposition, has so few ideas that it has to bring a thousand people in from around the countryside to tell it what to do—a thousand no doubt hand-picked people to give the sort of advice that the Labor Party wants. The man it has chosen to give advice in that regard is a longstanding friend of the Prime Minister and a longstanding Labor hack. That is the sort of person who will be chosen to give advice on those sorts of issues.

The reality is that this government does not know where it is going. Its plan to deal with inflation does not make sense. Many of these things it proposes are important. I strongly believe that we should have a budget surplus; that is something we should do. We do need to spend more on infrastructure bottlenecks, but, in the short term, that will actually increase inflation rather than decrease it. It is going to be a decade before you make a significant difference with infrastructure construction to actually put downward pressure on inflation.

The previous coalition government spent more money on infrastructure than any federal government in our history. We were the first to commit significant funding to roads. We were the first to commit funding to the national rail network in a way that has never happened before. It was a tragedy that, in the very first round of Labor government budget cuts, they cut $65 million off rail maintenance and construction in New South Wales and Victoria—not, as the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government said yesterday, from inland rail. Very little of it is off inland rail; nearly all of it is from getting rid of bottlenecks on the existing rail network. I cannot say that his answer yesterday was untruthful—I think that is unparliamentary—but he must have been inadvertently misinformed. If he cares to read his own budget statements supporting the announcement, he will see that most of this money was to be spent on existing rail lines.

We are going to do something about increasing skills; I am in favour of that as well. But building a few trade blocks, which were largely blocks that were taken away by a previous Labor government, is going to take years to feed extra trades men and women into the system. These are all important things; they are things that the previous government was doing. We were building trade colleges. Labor has chosen to do it at a high school level. Our trade colleges would have done the job faster but, for some reason or other, they are to be closed down, because of an ideological commitment by Labor with the state governments. The reality is that these are important priorities, but they are not a plan to tackle inflation in the next months. If this is an immediate crisis, as the government is choosing to say, then you need to take immediate action, and none of these things will deliver results in the short term.

The previous government inherited a government debt of $96 billion. We were in surplus when we left. Interest on government debt was over $8 billion. Now you are earning interest. Real wages growth under the previous government to ours was in the negative. It grew, without rapid inflation, by 20 per cent under our term. Average mortgage rates under Labor were 12.75 per cent. For us, it was 7.2 per cent. The unemployment rate was halved, the number of long-term unemployed was cut to one-third and the average inflation rate was halved. The net private investment was more than doubled and our tax burden was lowered. We lowered all of the tax rates. The number of Australians in work went up by two million—(Time expired)

The SPEAKER —Order! Before I call the member for Maribyrnong and Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, Mr Shorten, I remind honourable members that this is his first speech. I therefore ask that the usual courtesies be extended to him.