Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 2 December 2004
Page: 23

Senator BROWN (10:36 AM) —There is a clear need for an inquiry by the Senate Finance and Public Administration References Committee into the administration of the Regional Partnerships program and the Sustainable Regions Program, and the evidence for that grows every day. Senator Harradine did move for estimates hearings this week, and that was opposed by the government and the opposition and supported by the Greens. The opportunity for that is now gone until February, and it is limited, as earlier speakers have seen. But there is a need for an inquiry as, day by day, information comes out about the government's manipulation of this program in the way in which the moneys have been allocated in rural and regional Australia. I will read the first few paragraphs from Lenore Taylor's article in today's Australian Financial Review:

The federal government has spent $36.3 million of its $308 million regional partnerships program under a previously unpublished guideline allowing it to fund projects which don't fit the regular guidelines, but are judged to be in the national interest.

Among the 12 projects funded under this so-called Strategic Opportunities Notional Allocation (Sona) guideline are the dredging of a creek, a Slim Dusty museum and a national sugar industry assistance package.

According to a department brief released by the government yesterday, Sona guidelines can be used for projects which “may fall outside the administrative constraints of regional partnerships” but are nevertheless judged to be “of national or cross-regional significance” or projects which are responding to a “significant event such as a regional economic or social crisis.”

What we are seeing here is a secret guideline, outside those guidelines on the public record, giving the government—the minister of the day—the ability to make decisions which are not under those published, public guidelines. In other words, anything goes. The article, quoting from the departmental document, goes on to say this:

``Sona is not an advertised element of the program and applications cannot be lodged under it—”

So we have this secret guideline—this catch-all allowing ministers to do what they like—which is not advertised and not known to applicants in the bush. And Senator Boswell says that this is hard on the bush! You are telling me it is! Here is a government deceiving the bush—fraudulently leaving the applicants in the bush to believe that there is a set of guidelines, that it is fair for all players, while, no, the minister has got another guideline under the desk which allows him to fund projects which are outside the guidelines that the public and the people in the bush know about. The article continued:

“the department uses it as a mechanism to provide the government with flexibility inrelation to nationally significant projects, emerging needs or significant events,” the departmental document says.

So we have got a minister with `flexibility'—off the record, secret—pulling the rug from under the public perception that there is a set of guidelines that make it fair for everyone. That is outrageous. That is simply not acceptable. This is government manipulation and the debasing of a project which, on the face of it, seems to be fair to everybody. Talk about looking after the interests of the bush! How come Senator Boswell did not make sure that that guideline was known to the people in the bush who were approaching the government to get funding for their particular projects according to a set of published guidelines? Was Senator Boswell privy to this secret guideline used by the government and, if so, why did he cover up on it? If not, how could it be that the leader of the National Party in the Senate did not know what the Deputy Prime Minister knew in the House of Representatives? I would ask Senator Boswell to come back in here and explain this secret guideline, because I believe he knew about it and did not tell his constituents. If that is the case, he has a case to answer.

He comes in here and talks about `gatecrasher Independents'. Let us look at the implication in that, because it was aimed very squarely at the very popular Independent member for New England, Mr Windsor. `Gatecrasher' indeed! What an affront to the voters of New England that term by Senator Boswell is—the people of New England elected a member with a 20 per cent majority on 9 October and the leader of the National Party comes in here and calls that member a `gatecrasher'. That is an indication of how little Senator Boswell thinks of not only voters in New England but voters in the bush in general.

Senator Boswell and the National Party have let the bush down. They are so thick with the Liberal government, and indistinguishable from it, that in his own rhetoric the leader in the Senate pours scorn on voters in regional areas like New England—in Tamworth, in Armidale, in Glen Innes and in Tenterfield. They have elected a gatecrasher, he says. What an impudence and what a way to talk about people who hold the view that their Independent has a full right not only to take part in programs funded by the government but to be able to fairly represent them and be represented when the time of the payment of those programs comes about. We go back to the Financial Review article. It has revealed that one of the projects which apparently got funding under this secret guideline but outside of the guidelines as published was in the marginal Liberal seat of Dobell and was for the dredging of a creek. The article says this:

Tumbi Creek got two regional partnerships grants totalling $1.4 million in the lead-up to the federal election, despite the local area consultative committee's judgement that dredging the creek was a low priority for the region. The federal government has said the second grant was necessary for the work to proceed because the state government had refused funding. The state government favoured a different solution to the problem. Since the election, heavy rains have partially cleared the siltation in the creek. Only one of the federal grants appears to have been funded under the Sona guideline.

If that is true, here we have the federal government overriding the local area consultative committee's judgment. Where, here, is Senator Boswell standing by the rights of people in the bush? No, instead of that he is part of a cabal of ministers who override the judgment of the people in the bush. Witness what is going to happen with Telstra in the coming months one way or another under this government.

There is a pall of questions hanging over the administration of the Regional Partnerships program and the Sustainable Regions program. There is, on the face of it, political patronage interfering with those programs, advantaging some projects and disadvantaging others. That means disadvantaging the honourable people out there who put a lot of work into putting forward their projects under guidelines and who are being deceived by this government, which has another secret guideline under its desk which says, `No, this program can be manipulated for the political advantage of the government of the day.' Was there ever a better reason for the Finance and Public Administration References Committee to have a look? I think not. These matters demand further inquiry—and who is going to make that inquiry? Certainly not a government dominated House of Representatives. We in the Senate have an obligation to look into this matter. The Deputy Prime Minister says he has no worries—even though he will not come before the inquiry. That being the case, the inquiry should proceed so that we can clear the air over what has become a very odious process of what should be the delivery of moneys in prioritised, sensible and publicly accountable and transparent ways to projects in the bush.