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Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Page: 132

Senator O'BRIEN (4:52 PM) —I begin by saying that I thought that this government made the law that made almost all awards safety net awards. Senator Santoro might reflect on that in the context of his speech. Yesterday the Governor-General outlined the government's program for the 41st Parliament. I might express at the outset my disappointment that the opening of the 41st Parliament shared one characteristic with the opening of the preceding forty—that is, there was no acknowledgment of the traditional owners of the land on which parliament meets.

On the night of 9 October, the Prime Minister greeted the return of his government with an expression of humility. I cannot help but compare the language the Prime Minister used on election night with that contained in yesterday's speech outlining his legislative program. Clearly the time for humility has passed. Hubris is the new order of the day. Now the Prime Minister believes the re-election of his government has placed this nation at `the threshold of a new era of national achievement'. It is no surprise, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Having attended the chamber for the Governor-General's speech yesterday and read the Hansard record today, I cannot help but wonder whether the Prime Minister has been entirely forthcoming in outlining his legislative plans. While we heard some restatement of election commitments, the Governor-General was not asked to reveal the details of Minister Abbott's plan to amend arrangements relating to public funding of family planning nor asked to outline Minister Abetz's plan to change the electoral law to bolster the coalition vote at the next election and weaken the role of the Senate as a house of review. We heard nothing about the government's plans for the Senate after 1 July next year. We know the Senate is sitting very few days in the first half of 2005 and sitting very many days in the second half. This morning the Manager of Opposition Business, Senator Ludwig, expressed concern about this very matter on behalf of the Labor Party. He recognised, of course, that come 1 July next year the government will have the capacity to impose its will on this chamber. What we do not know is how the government proposes to change the standing orders to ensure this place does not encumber the implementation of the government's undisclosed legislative agenda.

I think it is pretty clear that significant elements of the government's real agenda were not outlined to the parliament yesterday afternoon nor put before the Australian people during the recent election campaign. In industrial relations, for example, we need to look beyond the government's previous announcements to discover what it means when it talks about achieving `greater workplace flexibility'—a pledge restated to the parliament yesterday. I think the HR Nicholls Society-backed plan reported in yesterday's Australian Financial Review is a more reliable guide to the Howard government's industrial relations agenda than anything we have heard from the Prime Minister or his workplace relations minister.

Des Moore, Chris Corrigan, Charles Copeman and John Stone, among others, have proposed an inquiry directed to achieving the diminution of workers rights to collectively bargain, a reduction in the role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and the establishment of individual contracts as the primary means for regulating employment. Minister Andrews has wasted no time signalling the government's preparedness to consider the proposals in the absence of any detailed examination. This morning he told ABC radio that he would rule nothing out. The greatest impact of the implementation of the HR Nicholls plan for a dog-eat-dog system of industrial anarchy—a return to the arrangements experienced in Britain in the 19th century—would, of course, be felt in regional Australia.

Today I want to address, in particular, the elements of the Governor-General's speech concerning the government's plan for regional services, local government and the territories, consistent with my shadow portfolio responsibilities in the new parliament. Yesterday the government renewed its commitment to pursue the full privatisation of Telstra. It added, of course, the disclaimer that the future sale of the company is contingent—and I quote:

... on adequate—

whatever that means—

telecommunications service levels and appropriate—

whatever that means—

market conditions.

Tellingly, dropped from the disclaimer was the phrase heard when the Telstra sale legislation was previously before the parliament—that is, that the sale is contingent on adequate service levels in regional Australia. It appears that adequate telecommunications service levels—defined any way the minister deems fit—are now enough.

The way in which the sale of Telstra is pursued will be one of the biggest tests for this government. The treatment of the coalition's reintroduced sale legislation will be one of the most important tests for this parliament. The Liberal Party's position on Telstra's sale is clear. Labor's position is also clear. Less clear is the attitude of some minor party and independent senators in this place and, might I say, murkier still is the position of that once-great party, the National Party, on this critical issue. I represent Australia's smallest state and, unlike most National Party representatives who sit in this place, I live and work in a regional city. One of the great privileges I had in the last parliament was the opportunity to travel around regional, rural and remote Australia. I can tell you that Australians who live outside the capital cities do not want the provider of their basic telecommunications services flogged off to the highest bidder. They do not want a near monopoly private provider dictating the price and quality of services that they enjoy. They do not want a company solely geared to shareholder profit determining when they can access services enjoyed by the residents of major cities as a matter of course.

The National Party made a lot of promises to its constituents during the election campaign. I suggest that many of those promises will not be kept by that party in this parliament, for reasons which include the fact that the Prime Minister considers promises to regional Australians to be of the non-core variety. One promise the party will keep is its promise not to support the sale of Telstra until services in regional, rural and remote Australia are up to scratch. The fact that the promise did not make its way into the Governor-General's speech on day one of the parliament is not a good start. Those of us who have already seen National Party MPs and senators defy the will of their electorates and their party organisation and vote for the sale of Telstra will not be holding our breath for anything different to happen in this parliament and nor do those of us who know the National Party expect it to stand up to the Liberal Party when the Prime Minister pursues further deregulation of postal services.

There were no guarantees given about the retention of Australia Post in full public ownership in yesterday's speech, and I am not surprised. No-one in regional Australia should be under any illusion that Australia Post will not be the object of the government's desire to put assets other than Telstra on the auction block over the next three years. The Howard government has, of course, done nothing about the decline in essential services in regional, rural and remote Australia over the past 8½ years. In regard to many government services it has actually facilitated that decline. One issue that continues to trouble many Australians outside the major cities is the availability of over-the-counter banking services. Availability of some banking services through Australia Post branches is not the equivalent of the suite of services available to Australians who live in the capital cities.

The Howard government has been content to allow regional communities to suffer the adverse economic and social effects of bank closures. In the vacuum created by the government's action, local government, community leaders and some banking organisations that retain some social responsibility—such as the Bendigo Bank—have acted. That community led action is welcome, but it does not serve to absolve the government of its own responsibility. In yesterday's speech by the Governor-General just two paragraphs—59 words—were devoted to the government's agenda for regional Australia. In relation to banking services, the government restated its commitment to increase services through Australia Post outlets. I do not dismiss that initiative, but I question the sense in having such a narrow and inadequate policy response. I regret that a narrow and inadequate policy response is what rural Australians and regional Australians will come to expect on issues that matter to them over the next three years.

On Monday I had the pleasure of attending the launch of the Australian Industry Group's Industry in the regions 2004 report. This key study has found that, while regional businesses are competing well against their metropolitan counterparts and often outperforming them in areas like leadership, the skills shortage in regional Australia is affecting business performance. Noted in the report is a key factor in the competitive successes of regional business—that is, Australia's open economy. This is, of course, a direct legacy of the economic reforms implemented by Labor governments in the 1980s and 1990s. It is disappointing that the Howard government has failed to capitalise on Labor's reforms by ignoring many of its key responsibilities, including the skilling of Australia's regional work force.

Three years ago the Australian Industry Group's Industry in the regions 2001 report rang the warning bell on skills in the regions. It recommended the adoption of a policy framework, including building an improved skills base. That warning was ignored by the government. The 2004 report again draws attention to this critical issue, calling on the government to assist business to develop a coordinated solution to the immediate issue of skills shortage. At Monday's report launch Ai Group chief executive Heather Ridout acknowledged that skills shortages in the regions are putting pressure on labour costs and limiting the development of regional business. A working example is Dubbo. Today's Australian newspaper carries a story about the difficulties Dubbo businesses are experiencing in attracting skilled staff. It is no coincidence that this electorate is represented by a member of the National Party—always prepared to put the white cars and ministerial titles ahead of the interests of their constituents.

After almost nine years in office, the Howard government has failed regional businesses by failing to address skills development in the regions. Regional business is competitive, but it is competitive despite the Howard government's policy malaise. Not only has it taken the Howard government 8½ years to recognise the skills crisis that it has created but its policy response has been narrow and inadequate. That so-called grand plan announced during the election campaign, the creation of Commonwealth technical schools divorced from the TAFE system and located in marginal seats, will not address the skills crisis in regional Australia.

On another matter, it will be a matter of great disappointment to Australia's 722 local government bodies that the Howard government's plans for local government were missing from the Governor-General's speech. Just days after the Prime Minister spoke at the National General Assembly of Local Government in Australia, it appears this important sphere of local government has slipped from the government's agenda. I was also pleased to address the National General Assembly of Local Government this year. Senators will not be surprised to learn that the debate at the assembly reflected the diverse range of interests held by Australia's local government representatives. Issues canvassed during debate at the assembly included the population and ageing challenge, the impact of the demise of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, justice for victims of asbestos related diseases and, of course, the critical issue of infrastructure funding.

Infrastructure was directly addressed in the State of the regions report 2004-2005, commissioned by the Australian Local Government Association and released at this national general assembly. That report finds that the economic momentum enjoyed by Australia over the past eight years can be attributed to consumer expenditure funded by debt; that the time has arrived, or will shortly arrive, when households cannot service more debt; and that a scaling back of household expenditure will lead to a decline in business expenditure and economic activity and employment will, in turn, suffer. The report also finds a growing income and employment gap between regions that has not been addressed by the Commonwealth government. The State of the regions report 2004-2005concludes that public infrastructure investment is the key to improving regional economic performance and narrowing the performance differential between regions. It challenges the federal government to address this public infrastructure challenge by increasing public debt to invest in measures to enhance economic growth. I listened in vain to the Governor-General's speech for some response, just as I searched in vain for some serious reflection on the report's findings in the remarks made by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads, Mr Lloyd, to the national general assembly. But I do look forward to exploring many of the issues addressed in the State of the regions reportand, with my colleagues, answering the challenges it presents.

As a Tasmanian senator, I clearly have cause to reflect most closely on infrastructure issues in my home state. To this end I hope that the Tasmanian and federal governments will give sufficient consideration to providing infrastructure support to facilitate the proposed pulp mill project in northern Tasmania. This project has the capacity to deliver significant economic benefits to my home state. It is important that we get it right. To this end I would urge the Howard government to work with the Lennon Labor government to pursue to the maximum extent possible the carriage of woodstock to the proposed mill via rail. Such infrastructure development would, of course, substantially reduce log truck use of Tasmanian roads. On some estimations, the carriage of woodstock to the mill via rail would take up to three million tonnes of wood off the road each year. There would be obvious benefits to road users and the governments—local, state and federal—charged with the responsibility of the upkeep of Tasmania's road network. Residents and tourists alike would welcome relief from log truck traffic. Not least of the benefits would be the development of infrastructure that would support the viability of rail transport in Tasmania for years to come.

I believe that on this issue the Howard government should take the opportunity to work in a bipartisan way to achieve a good economic, social and environmental outcome for the people of northern Tasmania. I raise this issue now in the hope that this factor will be built into any feasibility study proposal on any such mill. While on the subject of bipartisanship and noting the absence of any commitment in the Governor-General's speech, I do note Minister Lloyd's commitment to the National General Assembly of Local Government to work with the states on an improved formula for the delivery of financial assistance. Australia's local governments continue to wait for the coalition to adopt Labor's commitment to pursue constitutional recognition of this critical sphere of Australian government.

It is on the matter of governance that I turn to the last of the three portfolio matters I want to address in my contribution today—governance of Australia's territories. It is a matter that perhaps not surprisingly the Governor-General's speech failed to address. Last night ABC television broadcast a program on the Clunies-Ross `dynasty'. It focused on the family's decades long and controversial rule of Cocos (Keeling) Islands. It was a timely broadcast that I hope will serve to focus the attention of many Australians, including the minister for territories, on the governance of Cocos and its counterpart Australian territory in the Indian Ocean, Christmas Island. Minister Lloyd has not been in the territories portfolio for long. He does follow a less than distinguished roster of coalition ministers in the portfolio and has much work to do, including addressing service deficiencies in the Indian Ocean territories. Critically, he must also do what his predecessors have failed to do: work with the people of these territories to address their legitimate demand for a seat at the table when decisions about their future are made. Serious governance issues also arise in respect of Norfolk Island, including the issues raised in the 2003 report by the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories.

Over the next three years the minister will be called on to defend the right of self-government of the Northern Territory and the ACT. I hope we will be denied a repeat of some of the contemptuous behaviour displayed by the Howard government in respect of the ACT government. It gives me great pleasure to acknowledge the return of the Stanhope Labor government last month and to recognise its position as the first majority government since the establishment of the ACT Legislative Assembly. It was not all good news for the coalition recently.