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Thursday, 16 March 2000
Page: 14978

Mrs DE-ANNE KELLY (12:42 PM) —The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Regional Services is to be commended for the comprehensive report entitled Time running out: shaping regional Australia's future. It has certainly made an impact and that impact will have far-reaching consequences, more so because the recommendations have generally had rare bipartisan support. The document is more than 380 pages long. That, of course, reflects the taking and hearing of submissions, public hearings, inspections and informal meetings throughout Australia. While very few of us have had the opportunity to read it in full, I will certainly be giving it close attention and I am sure that many ministers concerned about rural and regional development will be as well. Because I represent a regional and rural electorate, the recommendations in this report are of particular interest to me.

It is very pleasing to those of us in the government, and I am sure in the broader community, that we have a booming economy. Yesterday the Treasurer, Mr Costello, predicted strong economic growth and low inflation, and that could be sustained for years to come. All of this followed on the December quarter national accounts data showing that the economy grew by 4.3 per cent in 1999. In fact, we have had 11 quarters of four per cent growth, unrivalled in the last 30 years. Of course, that is very heartening news. But as the standing committee's report makes clear, the benefits of this boom are not always reaching all areas of rural and regional Australia to the extent that they should. I can certainly speak for my own electorate, where low commodity prices in sugar, coal and a variety of horticultural produce are causing a good deal of difficulty for farmers, for the millers and for the businesses that depend on the farming sector. The report noted:

There has been a contraction of population resulting in a loss of skills in many regional areas and governments have focussed largely on metropolitan areas. Regional Australia's contribution to the nation's development has been well out of proportion to its influence on national affairs and policies. There is a growing sense of alienation and concern in many areas of regional Australia that their contribution continues to go unrecognised and that they are falling behind in health, education and technology.

I commend the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Recently he gave a major address to the Outlook 2000 Conference in which he said:

There are those in Australia that face some very serious challenges, and that applies to much of rural and regional Australia in particular. That is not to say that there are no other sectors of the community that face particular challenges, although I would like to say in passing that I see no reason at all why the national focus on the huge adjustment pressures being visited upon so many of our primary industries need somehow fuel divisions between city and country, as some commentators have seemed to suggest recently.

Mr Anderson continued:

If we fail to meet the reasonable expectations of country people, we will see this nation wrenched by political undercurrents that threaten to destabilise and undermine the foundations on which our economic prosperity is based.

I have not heard truer words about the predicament of those in country areas. It is certainly a refreshingly honest acknowledgment of the reality that faces us.

The report by the standing committee made reference to water. Currently, our national water infrastructure has a replacement value of $90 billion, yet more than half of that, $50 billion, is in urban areas. Underlining the importance of water infrastructure in rural and regional areas, the committee noted a submission attachment from the Hell's Gates Development Council, outlining the benefits of the proposed Hells Gate dam on the Burdekin River, in the northern part of Australia. The council submitted that the dam would provide $740 million in increased agricultural production per year and generate 20,000 permanent jobs.

I would also like to mention a water project in my electorate, the Elliott main channel, which would take water from the Burdekin dam down to Bowen, a battling little community. The dam and the Elliott main channel could open up 20,000 hectares of land—very productive land that at present is not being used at anywhere near its full capacity. It would obviously give opportunities for a huge number of jobs and an opportunity for those in Bowen who are unemployed at present, due to the closure of the meatworks, to once again play a productive part in northern Australia. The report states:

Through submissions and its visits to regional areas, the committee saw a number of examples where investment in water infrastructure has resulted in improved economic and social conditions through support for new industries and investment in regions. While dams may not be economically viable when first built, their eventual contribution to regional development is very substantial.

That is a very important point and I certainly agree. The committee cited the Fairbairn dam at Emerald, in Western Queensland, saying:

The Emerald Irrigation Scheme was developed in the late 1960s and 1970s, involving construction of the Fairbairn Dam and weirs and channels for irrigation, industrial and urban use ... The benefits ... have included:

population increase in Emerald from 2 000 in 1966 to 11 000 in 1999;

25 000 hectares of irrigated farmland producing cotton, peanuts, horticulture, grain and beef;

supply of domestic water to 6 towns and industrial water for coal mining;

unemployment in the region steady at below 5 per cent; and

development of supporting industries in the area including retail, health and welfare services, government agencies, education to tertiary level, sporting facilities and tourism development.

Nobody could walk through the town of Emerald and not be impressed with the bustling activity, the air of prosperity and the general enthusiasm of the citizens there for the future of their area. In my earlier remarks I cited the communique issued after the Regional Australia summit and I turn to that again.

Motion (by Mr Wilton) unresolved:

That further proceedings be conducted in the House.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—As the question is unresolved, the report will be returned to the House for further consideration.