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Monday, 3 March 2014
Page: 1391


Mr SNOWDON (Lingiari) (19:08): May I remind the House of the nature of the amendment that we are seeking to agree to, because I note that, thus far, none of the members opposite who have spoken in this debate on Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2013-14 and related bills have talked about the amendment. I know it is a general debate around appropriations, but the amendment is relevant. The amendment says:

whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading the House notes that:

(1) the Government repeatedly stated before the election 'that if debt is the problem, more debt is not the answer';

(2) the 2013-14 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook showed a $17 billion blow-out in the 2013-14 budget deficit, which at the time represented a $167 million budget blow-out per day since the Government took office;

(3) 60 per cent of the predicted budget blow-out in 2013-14 was due to the decisions of the Government alone;

(4) the Government has sought to pave the way for deep cuts to the federal budget by deliberately blowing out the budget and establishing its Commission of Audit; and

(5) these cuts would be another example of this Government saying one thing before the election, and doing the complete opposite after it.

I think they are relevant observations to be made about the commitments made by the Abbott government prior to the election and its statement about debt at the time of the election and post. It also notes that we have an ever-increasing debt which is largely the responsibility of decisions taken by the Abbott government.

Let's not be fooled. Whilst we understand the politics of blame and we understand the politics of them arguing legacy issues that have brought disaster on the world, the fact is that decisions directly taken by the Abbott government have led to ever-increasing debt. The truth is that there were many promises and statements made by the Abbott government and by the Prime Minister himself prior to the election which we know will be reneged upon. You will recall that on SBS News the night before the election, the Prime Minister said: 'No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or the SBS.' We already know about the mooted cuts to the ABC. As someone who has a very large regional electorate where the ABC is really the only broadcaster, the only media outlet, that actually communicates to the whole electorate, I know that the potential for cuts to the ABC and therefore the services that they are providing to regional Australia should be taken very seriously.

I wonder about the commitment made by the government on issues to do with regional Australia in any event. To me, they have not shown a great propensity to understand the importance of regional Australia or the issues engaged in regional Australia, despite the fact that they hold almost all the regional seats bar just a small number. Indeed, I am the only member of the Labor Party who holds a seat north or west of Brisbane. That is no source of great pride, I have to say, because we should be holding a lot more. When I first came to this parliament, the Labor Party held the seats of, for example, Leichhardt, Kennedy, Grey and Kalgoorlie as well as the Northern Territory. We actually held all of those large regional seats and now we hold only one of them—and that is a shame to us and we need to be concentrating our efforts on understanding why it is that those communities have rejected us in subsequent elections.

I have an issue which relates directly to northern Australia and directly to my own electorate. Mr Deputy Speaker, you may recall—you may not; you may have missed this—that on 16 January this year, the member for Leichhardt and the honourable the Deputy Prime Minister issued a joint press release in which they announced a $210 million Commonwealth package set to enhance the region's economy. Mr Truss, the Deputy Prime Minister, said at the time:

This funding commitment is great news because it will boost the economy by upgrading key roads and infrastructure to better connect areas of economic opportunity with the local communities.

Good on them: $210 million for the seat of Leichhardt!

Just cast your mind around the rest of northern Australia and ask what this government is doing for the rest of northern Australia. I ask you not just to look at it in the context of me talking about Lingiari but, most particularly, to look at what has happened at Gove and the absolute lack of action by this government to invest in the communities of north-east Arnhem Land to mitigate the impacts of the closure by Rio Tinto of their bauxite refinery. Just understand what is happening here. This announcement was made at the end of November. It meant that the Gove plant was effectively going to be put into mothballs at the end of July. This shutdown process would commence early in February, so effectively the community had two months to deal with the prospect that, on Rio's own figures, the town of Gove will go from a population of 4,000 to a population of 1,200. Spending on Gove and the region historically has been $460 million annually. That will drop to $170 million annually. This decision means that this day people are leaving Gove and the region. I said Gove had 4,000 people. There are 14,000 people in the region of north-east Arnhem Land, mostly in Aboriginal communities, who have relied on Gove as a major service centre. If you take away 2,800 people out of a community of 4,000, it has impacts on all the services that are being provided by the town and in the town. It has impacts on every small business in the place. For example, one small business with a rental bill of $11,000 a month has an income of less than $300 a day as a result of the decision.

Bear in mind that I talked about the $210 million announced for Leichhardt. Since this decision was made, there has been no effort by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the minister responsible for regional Australia or the Minister for Industry—none of them—to talk to or communicate with anyone in relation to these issues in north-east Arnhem Land. The Northern Territory CLP senator, who is a cabinet minister, Senator Scullion, has not bothered to grace the doors of people in Gove to explain why this government is prepared to spend $210 million in Leichhardt when in their time of need, when the community has been gutted and has been hit by a disaster of cyclonic proportions—man-made and devastating to jobs and services in the community—not one finger has been lifted by this government to put in place a structural adjustment package of the type that might provide the infrastructure and other job options for people into the future. That is an absolute disgrace.

We had the Prime Minister in Darwin last Friday and Saturday doing a noble thing, welcoming home Australian troops who had been fighting in Afghanistan in 2013. It was a wonderful thing and I was very proud to be part of it. He arrived in Darwin on Friday and delivered a joint statement with the Northern Territory Chief Minister about northern Australia but could not be bothered, either on the way up or on the way home, to drop into Gove and see people who want to see him. What does that tell you about our Prime Minister? What does it tell you about this government? What does it tell you about their motivation in working with people in need in this country—people who really are feeling it in such a way that they are required to uproot and leave their homes? There are no jobs, but there is nothing from this government to mitigate those decisions or try to remediate the situation.

I talked earlier about the Prime Minister's statement that there would be no cuts. Let him explain how it is that he can say, firstly, that he was on a unity ticket with Labor about the funding going into education when Labor committed $14.65 billion over six years for school funding and there is now only $2.8 billion over four years from this government. What is that if not a funding cut? The Prime Minister said before the election, 'You can vote Liberal or Labor and you'll get exactly the same amount of funding for your school.' What absolute rot!

We know also that despite providing funding of $10 million for truancy in 18 schools in the Northern Territory—a positive thing that the Commonwealth government is doing, I might say—they have done nothing to ensure that, once the kids get to school, there are sufficient teaching resources and support staff to give the kids a quality education. At the very same time the Commonwealth government is stumping up this money for truancy officers, the Northern Territory government is pulling teachers and support staff out of the schools. What does that tell you about the commitment of this government to education? It is all right for Senator Scullion, the minister who made this announcement, to say this is a matter for the Northern Territory government. You will recall, Mr Deputy Speaker, that under the previous Labor administration the Commonwealth government gave the Northern Territory government over $110 million for an additional 200 teachers in schools around the Northern Territory. At the very same time, the conservative CLP government of the Northern Territory cut teachers. You cannot have it both ways, and I do not accept at all that the Commonwealth government is actually committed.

We know about higher education. The mooted Higher Education Support Amendment (Savings and Other Measures) Bill, which over four years will rip out $900 million in efficiency dividends from the Commonwealth grants to universities, will have a massive impact in the Northern Territory. Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education and Charles Darwin University will lose some $900,000 over four years. This will impact directly on 2,163 students and 299 university staff studying and living in my own electorate. Based on the number of youth allowance, Abstudy and Austudy recipients living in my electorate, the abolition of the student start-up scholarship might cost some 124 students in my electorate over $100,000 in scholarships over the next four years. You can't have it both ways. How can the government, how can the Prime Minister, say there will be no cuts when we know that they have cut $1 million from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health programs for 2013-14, they have taken $5 million from the Chronic Disease Prevention and Service Improvement Fund over four years from 2013, they have taken $22.3 million over four years from the National Rural and Remote Health Infrastructure Program and they have taken $6 million from the Public Health Program in 2013-14. You just cannot believe them.

So it is all very well for members opposite to get up here and beat their breasts about how great their government is, but the fact is that this Prime Minister went to the election saying that there would be no cuts in education, no cuts in health and no cuts to the ABC, but now it is writ large that there are cuts. That is going to impact directly upon people who can least afford to have cuts made. The education outcomes for Australians and the health outcomes for Australians are of most concern to the people of my electorate, the poorest Australians in the country.