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Thursday, 17 February 2000
Page: 13828

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON (9:59 AM) —I rise to speak this morning on what is largely a non-controversial bill, the Albury-Wodonga Development Amendment Bill 1999. In doing so, I want to make some passing comments on the historical context in which the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation was developed. I also want to make some relevant comments about where we believe the debate about regional development is at the moment.

As the Main Committee understands, the bill in effect will start the long process of winding up the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation that was established way back in 1973. The Albury-Wodonga Ministerial Council decided in its 1995 and 1997 meetings to finally wind up the development corporation and to dispose of all of its land and assets. The Albury-Wodonga Development Financial Assistance Act of 1973 provided a mechanism for funding land acquisition in New South Wales and Victoria, but it is no longer required as the state corporations are to be abolished. The bill also provides for the repeal of that act.

I believe that the bill is significant because it provides a historical backdrop to the stark differences in approach to regional development policy by the Labor Party and the coalition parties, differences that are just as evident today as they were 30 years ago during the Whitlam government's period of office. It was in 1973 that the Whitlam Labor government had a vision to create regional centres throughout Australia by direct government involvement. Although the success of its ideas on regional development can be argued, at least that government had ideas about what we should do as a nation. It was prepared to at least have a go to try and lend some support to regional development. I dare to suggest that the same could not be said of the current government, which is totally bereft of ideas and treats people in rural and regional Australia with politically driven disdain. In contrast to the current government's approach, Labor's vision today is one that will give back to regional and rural communities their services that in many cases have been ripped away in recent times.

The bill is especially significant given the truly amazing scenes we have witnessed in recent weeks when the Prime Minister headed off on his bush apology tour. Despite his glib assurances, it is clear that the Prime Minister has not fully understood that his government's abandonment of regional development is one of the most regressive, short-sighted policy mistakes of recent decades. And unfortunately, despite his bush tour, he still does not understand the difficulties of the bush. I believe that, without a coherent strategy for regional development and a fair sharing of opportunities between and within regions, the Prime Minister does not seem to realise that many rural and regional communities will fall further behind. No amount of touring Australia in VIP aeroplanes and white cars by the Prime Minister, in a vain attempt to show that he is listening, is going to convince angry rural and regional people that he has not turned his back on them.

The Howard government has cut 32,000 jobs, a fifth of the Commonwealth Public Service, since 1996. People have not forgotten the massive job losses that have occurred across the board in the ABC, and in Medicare, tax and social security offices in their towns. They will not forget that at least 40,000 jobs have been lost from Telstra in preparation for its various sell-offs—and the Prime Minister now suggests that there is more to come.

I am not talking about a public versus private debate; I am talking about what the Howard government has ripped out of communities, especially in rural and regional Australia. When I travel around the country, people always bring up one of the first low acts of the current government: the abolition of the department of regional development in the 1996 budget. I believe that decision represented a fundamental statement of what the Howard government believes. At that time they so proudly declared, as the minister said, that there was no role for the Commonwealth government in regional development. They even renamed the department, taking out the reference to regional development. But look at them now. How things change when the polls turn a little bit. It is little wonder that people feel left behind because they have been left behind by this government from its very first decision to abolish the office of regional development in its very first budget in 1996. Talk about sinking the boot into rural and regional Australia.

The people in Australia's 200 regions with double-digit unemployment are entitled to be asking the Howard government why they have neglected them for so long. The people in these communities want to know how they can repair the damage done by the rapid economic and social change of recent decades that has pressured many firms and services out of rural and regional communities. I do not believe that they are interested in empty rhetoric about a floor being placed under rural and regional services—the Prime Minister's most recent promise in an endeavour to win back support in regional Australia.

Alternatively, Labor's approach is not about building a floor under services; it is about constructing the whole artifice, with as many people involved as possible at a grassroots level. We all know that change is inevitable. The challenge for this government and all governments at all levels is to assist communities in dealing with that change. That means that the government must be more flexible than it has traditionally been. It means that a strong Telstra and Australia Post need to be assured—if anything, guaranteed—in rural and regional communities so that we can secure services for all Australians, irrespective of whether they live in the bush or metropolitan Australia.

I might say also in that context that I believe that a potentially strong coalition exists between the suburbs in metropolitan Australia and people in rural and regional Australia. The debate is very much about where you live. It is about locational disadvantage. There is just as much locational disadvantage in some suburbs in Western Sydney as there is in some rural and regional communities. In raising these concerns about services, I would seek to argue just as rigorously that some suburbs of metropolitan Australia are entitled to join with some regions of rural and regional Australia to make sure that their voices are finally heard in government at all levels. Locational disadvantage is a very strong issue in those communities. Unless we come to terms with some of those locational disadvantage problems then we are going to ensure that Australia divides. Those who have are going to draw further and further away from those who do not have because of locational disadvantage difficulties.

I believe the debate should not just be about profits. It is not a debate about the public or the private sector, it is a debate about people and ideas. It means that when a community loses its financial services the government is supposed to be working with the community to respond to that reality. It means that when a community faces major economic restructuring, the government must be working with that community to develop new industry opportunities. It means that when a community suffers problems relating to crime or drugs, the government must be working with that community to overcome those problems. It is not about a `social coalition' from which the government pulls back and hopes donations will make up the slack; it is about a real commitment in government, not just in dollar terms but in delivering to communities what they need and when they need it. It is about new partnerships based on the parties doing what they do best—not weaker government but smarter and committed government. It is about an agenda, as Whitlam sought in 1973 with respect to this bill, that incorporates new measures to revitalise rural and regional Australia. It is about new partnerships between business, government and the community. It is about empowering people at a grassroots level.

That means taking a proper look at creating, retaining and developing businesses and industries. It means identifying new business opportunities and industry clusters. It means appreciating that information, and communication technologies hold the key to the knowledge nation. It is about broadening the debate about infrastructure. It is no longer just about roads, railways and bridges. Infrastructure development is also about investment in people, ideas, education and training, the new infrastructure requirements to overcome the gap that exists between some areas of rural and regional Australia and metropolitan Australia. It is about coming up with innovative regional economic strategies that involve stakeholders and shared information. It means placing a premium on labour market programs and work force development initiatives and developing new approaches to learning. It means building social capital and defining new roles for all levels of government. It means all levels of government breaking down some of the jealousies and the differences which are now required in order to come to terms with the problems of rural and regional Australia, and better cooperation at a local, state and federal level.

When people ask me why the Howard government is on the nose in rural and regional Australia, the answer is simple: it is because our national government has made itself irrelevant to people's lives in those communities. Our national government no longer serves the purpose that it is meant to serve. It no longer serves all Australians. Too many people and places have to go it alone. That is what the Howard government's ideology is all about. It is about leaving it to the market, the trickle-down theory. As you move around rural and regional Australia today you come to the very quick conclusion that more is required than the market, that in fact there is a role for government in rural and regional Australia, a proactive role based on being smart and trying to work out how you give local communities not only the enthusiasm that they have but more importantly the necessary resources in some instances to overcome the barriers that are holding them back.

That is what the Albury-Wodonga bill is actually about. It is about building and empowering that community. Our responsibility is to learn from the lessons of the Whitlam and successive governments, irrespective of their political persuasion, and to face up to the fact that, in a lot of ways, all of us have let down rural and regional Australia. The time has come to learn from our mistakes and work out how to reinvolve and re-energise ourselves at a national level. We must roll up our sleeves and get back to being involved in rural and regional Australia and try and improve their lot.

It is on that fundamental point that Australians are beginning to see the difference between a Howard government and a future Kim Beazley Labor government. If you put the muzzle on the people for long enough, when you try to take it off you will find them biting back and biting hard. Just ask the coalition in places such as New South Wales and Victoria about that and consider the recent election outcomes, including the Queensland by-elections of recent weeks.

Mr MARTIN FERGUSON —Yes, I note the intervention—and I refer to the successful caucus meeting of the Liberal Party in Brisbane yesterday—all nine of them. We all know about backbiting, disunity and undermining the leader, don't we?

In conclusion, I also note that, in the winding up of the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation, there is also a potential return to the Commonwealth of the order of $15 million in 2000 and 2001. That return in future will depend on the successful disposal of assets and may fluctuate depending on market circumstances. I also understand that in 1995 the ministerial council, in winding up the corporation, entirely resolved that the corporation should progressively sell off many of its assets, including commercial and residential real estate. In order to protect real estate values in the region, this sell-off has been subject to minimum prices set by the respective state valuers general.

On the question of the return to the Commonwealth, I also note from recent discussions I have had with people from the Albury-Wodonga area that there is a burning debate about a potential bypass for the highway instead of the highway going through the centre of the community. In the light of community concerns and growing support for the bypass, maybe the Commonwealth government should revisit the decision that the highway continue through the centre of the community. This could be done in association with the Victorian and New South Wales governments for the purposes of seeing whether or not the potential return from the sale of the assets of the Albury-Wodonga Development Corporation could be better utilised by allocating them to make up the difference between the cost of the highway upgrade through the main community and the cost of the bypass.

The debate is an important one because it is clearly proven that many communities along the highway believe that it is better to have the bypass rather than the upgrade through those communities. This is an issue that ought to be debated. It reflects the concern of the local communities. It is something that all of us should debate in a non-political way. There are potential financial returns to the government from the sale of the corporation. They could be used as a contribution to the extra costs of the bypass, which would potentially be a better long-term decision for the Albury-Wodonga community.

I thank you for the opportunity to speak on this bill. It does represent an historical endeavour by a previous Labor government to support rural and regional Australia. It also reminds us that there is room for improvement for all of us. Not only rural and regional Australia but also some suburbs in metropolitan Australia believe they are missing out. There are major problems of locational disadvantage going to infrastructure and, as a community, we have to make sure that we attend to those issues to ensure that we do not see the return, for example, of the ugly head of political parties such as One Nation.