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Monday, 24 February 2014
Page: 501

Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (10:55): I rise to speak in support of this important private member's motion moved by my colleague the member for Throsby, whose own electorate shares a remarkably similar history to that of Newcastle and who likewise hails from a region which has always punched above its weight and which remains an important social and economic contributor to our nation. My own electorate of Newcastle, embedded within the Hunter region, is part of Australia's largest regional economy, producing around $37 billion in 2012 and eight per cent of New South Wales's total economic activity. So there is no doubt that regional Australia makes a more than significant contribution to our nation.

As do all regions, we expect this contribution to be recognised and indeed supported as appropriate by all levels of government to ensure continued growth and economic development. It is no secret that regional Australia and their local governments in particular struggle to meet the growing infrastructure needs of their communities. That is one of the reasons that the previous federal Labor government established Regional Development Australia, the first-ever tripartite regional development advisory body linking the federal, state and local governments together with regions across the nation. RDAs allowed local communities direct access to Canberra and helped to depoliticise the nature of infrastructure funding in the regions by operating as an independent body at arm's length from government and setting their own priorities for local infrastructure. RDAs worked to put an end to the bad old days of regional rorts that operated under the Howard government. RDAs across the nation are made up of local leaders who volunteer their time to work across each region for the benefit of their communities. Their task is to develop strong long-term strategies and solutions for their regions' needs. RDA Hunter, under the strong leadership of Dr Gaye Hart as chair and Mr Todd Williams as the CEO, is an excellent example of RDA's work to grow and sustain a region's economy for the future. I would suggest that any government that chooses to ignore or dismiss the advice and recommendations of local RDAs does so at its own peril.

That is what is so distressing about this government's decision to slash the round 5 Regional Development Australia funding grants for community infrastructure. In my electorate, the Newcastle City Council was set to receive more than $1 million to upgrade the Merewether Baths pavilion and surrounding area, ensuring that amenity and accessibility issues were addressed. The improvements included the replacement of the baths pavilion, new shade shelters and seating and the provision of disability access to the area. The works were to complement the major upgrade of the baths funded by a state government loan and the council's own funds. The major upgrade to the baths themselves is going ahead, with the baths closing this week. However, the million dollars ripped out by the Abbott government will mean that the site remains inaccessible to wheelchair users, with the old, rusty and somewhat dangerous pavilion remaining. The council confirmed this themselves in their public information document: 'No works to the pavilion are included in this stage of the redevelopment. Council are currently considering options for renewal for the pavilion and public domain.' The cash-strapped council could have done without another review. They could have done with the $1 million of funding from the federal government.

In six or so months time when the baths reopen we will have a wonderful upgraded free facility for the community to enjoy. Some of the old Merewether Mackerels, the winter swimming club, will tell you that a daily swim there, especially in the midst of winter, is life prolonging. But significant numbers of our community will not be able to use the facility as it will remain inaccessible. If wheelchair users are lucky, they will be able to roll down to the baths that will have improved accessibility at the water's edge but they will not be able to find their way back up the steep, non-compliant ramps.

This cut to regional funding is cruel and it does not make sense. This government needs to come clean on why it is abandoning these much-needed, small-scale community infrastructure projects. As highlighted by this motion today, the government is now picking and choosing which projects are to progress for funding. What, if any, consultation has the government had with local government and local communities? I join with my Labor colleagues today and call on the Abbott government to honour the RDA round 5 funding commitments, including the $1 million allocated for the Merewether baths, to give certainty to Newcastle and other regional communities around Australia who have been left in limbo. (Time expired)