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Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Page: 28

Senator CARR (2:10 PM) —My question is to Senator Ian Campbell, the Minister representing the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Can the minister confirm that the Gunnedah ethanol plant project appears on the web page of the New England and North West Area Consultative Committee as an ACC Regional Partnerships grant of $1.1 million? Can the minister also confirm that, under the heading, `Who is not eligible to apply for Regional Partnerships funding' the Regional Partnerships guidelines explicitly exclude:

private enterprise and co-operatives, that are considered commercial enterprises, requesting funding for planning, studies or research;

Is the minister aware of the public statement by the sole recipient of this grant, Mr Matthew Kelley of Primary Energy Pty Ltd, that `the money would be used to pay for a CSIRO study into greenhouse gas reductions'? Under the circumstances, how is it that the Deputy Prime Minister allowed a funding program within his ministerial portfolio to approve a grant to his own electorate which so clearly contravenes the program's own guidelines?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I do go to the Web from time to time and look for information. I have not searched that particular site. I went to the Australian Labor Party site recently and found that the entire site had been airbrushed. In the old days they used to have one of these fine-nibbed airbrushes so that they could take out relevant bits of Lathamisms from the past that were a bit embarrassing! They would airbrush those here and there. But after the election they got this great big broad-tipped airbrush and they have actually gone through entire pages. I was searching for their forest policy—

Senator Chris Evans —Mr President, on a point of order: the minister was asked a very serious question about public accountability for taxpayers' funds. He has made no attempt to answer the question. He is going on a travail because he cannot answer. Could you bring him to order on the basis of relevance and direct him to answer the question.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —In answer to the point of order, I was specifically asked had I been to a web site and I was responding to the first part of the question.

The PRESIDENT —On the point of order from Senator Evans, I remind the minister that he has three minutes left to answer the question and I remind him of the question.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —On the question as to whether I have visited a web site under that area consultative committee, the answer is no. But I am well aware of the program guidelines, the Namoi structural adjustment package, and the Regional Partnerships program and the guidelines as to that. I am also well aware of the benefits of this project and I am very pleased to see, as the environment minister, that the proponent of this project wants to assess the greenhouse emissions benefits. In fact it is a reality under the Howard government that we have done more to address greenhouse issues—we have done more to address global warming and climate issues—than most other governments around the world. I am pleased to see that projects under Regional Partnerships and proponents such as Primary Energy Pty Ltd are ensuring that they are making a contribution to the environment—but not just saying they are doing it and publishing a report and saying, like Premier Bob Carr did last week, `We'll stop our ministers driving V8 vehicles,' while at the same time going off and creating emissions elsewhere. This government is focused on an integrated response, and investing in an ethanol plant in this region—the project that Senator Carr's question refers to—

Senator Carr —Mr President, I raise a point of order in terms of relevance. The minister was asked a specific question about whether a grant was in breach of the guidelines. I would ask you to bring him back to the question that was asked.

The PRESIDENT —I remind the minister of the question. I presume that there will be a supplementary question as well. Senator Campbell, you have two minutes.

Senator IAN CAMPBELL —Thank you, Mr President. It is quite clear that Senator Carr does not like the answer that he is getting. But the guidelines are there for everybody to see. I have got absolutely no doubt that the project and the approvals processes are entirely in order. I also have absolutely no doubt that the project itself will make a significant contribution to the sustainability of the region. It will create 50 full-time jobs. It will create an additional 350 indirect jobs. It will provide the baseload for the Central Ranges natural gas pipeline and expand the economic base of that local economy by around $170 million. In addition, it will utilise 300,000 tonnes of coarse grains annually to produce 120 million litres of fuel-grade alcohol and 90,000 tonnes of valuable stockfeed per year. The plant will play a major role in reducing the economic impact of the changed water allocations in the Namoi Valley, a huge structural adjustment issue for the people of that region—something that Senator Carr will probably never understand nor ever try to understand. I say seriously to the opposition that they should assist, rather than tear down these regional projects and tear down a program that will assist regional communities that need assistance from the Commonwealth government, because quite often Labor governments ignore them. I suggest to Senator Carr that, rather than hanging around central Melbourne over the recess, he should go and buy himself a pair of Blundstones, get them a bit dirty and go and talk to the people who are trying to build regional Australia. I bet he does not do it.

Senator CARR —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. It is quite clear that the minister had trouble following the question. I ask him to take on notice the question I asked with regard to the eligibility of this particular grant applicant for the grants and whether or not there was a breach of the guidelines. I also ask the minister to please advise the Senate of the details of the government's new strategic opportunities national assessment guidelines, otherwise known as the SONA guidelines. Can he confirm whether or not these guidelines were used to override the guidelines for the Regional Partnerships program, and are they available for other uses in his department, particularly where the need arises—for instance, where local political interest benefits need to be demonstrated? Can he confirm that the SONA guidelines were in fact introduced in only March this year? Would he table a copy of those guidelines?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —Senator Carr wants to play cheap and dirty politics with grants to regional Australia that are benefiting local communities, benefiting the local economy, benefiting the national economy and benefiting the environment. He wants to continue in the fine Labor tradition of sitting in the comfortable inner city, sipping a cappuccino and pouring scorn on anything the government does to help a struggling regional community—in this case with a modest grant that will leverage significant further investment. The guidelines have been applied to this project. He asks, `Do we have a guideline that allows political interests to overwhelm other guidelines?' No, but we do have a guideline that says national benefit can be brought to bear—and Senator Carr knows this—and the national benefit of this is that it is creating jobs in regional Australia, creating good outcomes for the national economy, creating 140 permanent jobs and a good outcome for the environment. (Time expired)