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Monday, 26 March 2001
Page: 25563


Mr KATTER (1:15 PM) —I originally proposed to present two bills: one to abolish indexation and the second one to take the 1.05c a litre rise and put it across to rural infrastructure. At the time of proposing those two bills, I was criticised in the media: terms like `rogue', `loose cannon', `maverick', and some even less attractive terms were ascribed to my behaviour. It was rather satisfying to see the government take up the idea some two weeks later. Unfortunately and sadly, many of my colleagues in Queensland are now no longer in parliament; perhaps, if moves like that had been taken sooner—if the statements that I was making were taken up sooner—we might have some more of our National Party colleagues in the state house in Queensland. There were many angry remarks about that on the weekend.

We do not want to put up the price of petrol, so we modified our second bill to take 1.5c off the existing excise duty. If anyone thinks that that is radical or irresponsible behaviour, all of the parties, including the Independent, Mr Andren, who is seconding this bill, were on time that was running out in shaping regional Australia's future. A standing committee of this House said that 2c a litre should be taken and used specifically in addition to present road expenditures on road infrastructure in Australia. Some $350 million a year has been allocated as a special one-off for the next four years, so to some degree that recommendation has been implemented. But we have widened the idea here and said that not 2c but 1.5c should go to a rural development fund. Those who, like me, have had the privilege of serving as a minister for a long time know that budgets are very unwieldy if you have line items there. Things suddenly occur where tremendous opportunities arise, but, if you do not have a line item in your budget you have to go through the very unwieldy process of cabinet decision making to be able to secure some money for a particular purpose. It is very difficult if all of your budget is already taken up with line items. This measure gives a minister some flexibility. We are not moving towards any New Guinea type situation here or to a situation like Ros Kelly's whiteboard; we would expect that governments would act in a responsible manner.

The Karumba road is very hard to justify at present; yet unless that road is shifted west of its present situation there will not be an all-weather port in the Gulf Country of Australia. Moreover, Karumba is the most central port for continental Australia. The five major offices of Westpac Bank and the AMP Society were in the four capital cities and in Normanton. Now the port has just moved a bit downstream to Karumba. People looked at a map of Australia and said that this was the most central port. But it is a port that cannot be used for three months of every year because the road goes under water for that period of time.

Under national competition policy, we cannot build electricity lines anywhere unless they pay for themselves. So the Gulf Country of Australia languishes at the present moment because of this national competition policy agreement. As Minister for Mines and Energy in the parliament of Queensland, I decided to put a grid power system right across the Gulf Country from Cairns through Georgetown, Croydon and Normanton, all the way to Karumba. I told the cabinet that I could not see any way that the line could pay for itself—I was not going to deceive cabinet by telling them that it could—and that it was my belief that industries would come on that line and the line would more than pay for itself. I am informed that, at the moment, the line is almost doubly paying for itself—the amount of money coming in is almost double what is needed to service the debt.

To quote one example, people approached me about mango farming in North Queensland and I said, `Go to Georgetown.' They said, `Why is no-one there?' I said, `There's no bitumen road and there's no electricity.' They said, `We cannot go there without those things,' and I said, `The bitumen road will be completed this year and the electricity will be through next year.' We now have 10,000 mango trees—one of the biggest mango orchards in Australia—creating a vitally needed industry for Georgetown, a very small town that has very little industry, with only 400 or 500 people living there at the moment.

On more ambitious projects, even the Parliamentary Library informs me that 1.5c will deliver only $472 million per year, but that $472 million a year, if it were put into, for example, the Hells Gates dam in North Queensland, would yield an income for this country of $740 million per year. Current estimates are that it will cost about $600 million for the dam and delivery systems, yet every single year forever that dam will produce $740 million extra income for this country, creating 8,000 to 15,000 jobs that simply do not exist at the moment. I am sure that figure can be multiplied all over northern Australia where our water resources are not being used at all.

To give you some idea of the potential that I am talking about, the Murray-Darling produces 40 per cent of Australia's agriculture. About $10,000 million of agricultural production comes off the Murray-Darling. That converts itself into about $20,000 or $30,000 million worth of food for Australia which comes off 22 million megalitres of water. The Gulf Country and its environs in Queensland alone have 126 million megalitres of water. There are some 35,000 farmers in the Murray-Darling; there are about 12 in the Gulf Country—arguably, there are only five and I could name them. I know them personally. So we have this enormous resource that God has given us, some six or seven times the size of the resource of the Murray-Darling, which is overtaxed if one listens to the media and various reports. Here we have a resource that is not being used at all. Not only is the second biggest river in this country, the Mitchell River, not used for farming but most of it is fenced off because there are a lot of crocodiles in the Gulf Country and cattle have to be protected from the crocodiles—they cannot be allowed near the water. Cattle are not even drinking the water in the Mitchell River.

If it is a huge project like the Bradfield scheme—Bradfield was the man who built the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Storey Bridge in Queensland, the underground railway system in Sydney and the University of Queensland, amongst many other things, and he had this wonderful proposal for North Queensland—it would probably bring $4,000 million or $5,000 million a year extra into the Australian economy. That is not exactly a foolish scheme. If we are talking about developing all of the water resources of the gulf, maybe we are talking about $20,000 million a year for the Australian economy.

Mr Deputy Speaker Nehl, a subject near to the heart of the members of parliament who represent electorates further north than yours is the ethanol industry, which involves more than just the sugar industry. People say that there is nothing we can do under globalisation—agriculture has just got to rot on the vine, which is what effectively is happening now. But that is not true. With an aggressive, intelligent government asserting itself, we can do wonderful things at no cost to the consumers and at no cost to the taxpayers. Ethanol is a magnificent example of this. Let us look at the example of Australia moving to a 15 per cent ethanol blend in our petrol. Germany and France have an ethanol blend in their petrol, as do Canada, the United States and Brazil. Indeed, it is hard for me to think of a single country that does not have an ethanol blend in its petrol. Sadly, the only country in the world that does not have an ethanol blend in its petrol is Australia—the one country that should have an ethanol blend in its petrol.

What would happen if we moved to an ethanol blend? At the moment, Minister Hockey is going to get those pirates that are putting ethanol in the petrol tanks because it is cheaper than petrol. At present, the Brazilians are producing it for 25c and the world price is 29c. We are paying the oil companies about 35c. So ethanol is enormously economically attractive. If we proceeded down this pathway, $2,000 million a year would be taken away from the oil companies—the Shells and the BPs—and it would be handed over to Australian farmers and the Australian mill workers that would be working in the ethanol plants dotted throughout the wheat industry and the sugar industry of Australia. One has to ask the question: why are we not doing this? One must say: let us start doing this. One of the problems is that no minister has a fund of money that he can call upon specifically for this sort of purpose. He has to go through the extremely unwieldy process of going through cabinet—but I do not want to go into the machinations of how cabinets work.

Mr Andren, who is seconding this motion, represents the electorate of Calare, which includes the town of Forbes. The Forbes transport centre project is of very great importance to Australia. At the moment, we have the ability to produce almost unlimited amounts of fruit and vegetables, but once we put them on an aeroplane to fly them to Asia under the present arrangements it becomes very non-competitive in cost terms. That being the case, we need a very well-set-up Flying Tigers type of operation out of an area that is central to the horticulture industry of New South Wales. Of course, we would also like to see those planes put down in North Queensland, which is a huge horticulture growing area as well. With those planes properly set up with back-loading, we could produce a fairly efficient and cost-effective traffic instead of putting produce in the hulls of Qantas passenger planes, as we are doing at the moment. I think that we could provide markets where markets simply do not exist at the moment.

Finally, I have some comments for those who ask why this should be limited to rural Australia. I wish to refer to a Productivity Commission report on transport—I think it was Mr Fred Hilmer who produced the report—which came out just after the mid-1980s. It said that every single year $4,000 million was spent on the subsidisation of commuter transportation systems for the metropolitan areas of Australia. When people in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane go to work of a morning, around half of them are subsidised to the tune of about 50 per cent of the cost of going to work. There is virtually no commuter transportation system at all for the million people who live north of Brisbane. When we go to work of a morning, we pay 100 per cent tax on our fuel and we pay about 20 per cent in government charges upon our motor car as well. So we pay a huge regime of government charges, including taxation and tariffs, when we go to work of a morning, yet people in the metropolitan areas get subsidised when they go to work of a morning. One may say that a lot of people in the cities are driving cars. However, people in the cities have the option of using a commuter transportation system. It is not an option for those people living north of Brisbane and, I suspect, west of the Blue Mountains and north of Sydney, if I am using New South Wales as an example.

This situation is terribly unfair. Government reports now indicate that the subsidy has blown out to over $6,000 million a year, and I would be fairly confident that it would have. The way to rectify some of that unfairness is to set up this fund. This fund means a lot to people in western Queensland where, over the last two or three decades, we have lost some 39 per cent of our population to places like Brisbane, which has seen its population explode and increase by 151 per cent in the same period. If you want anyone to be living outside the capital cities in Australia and the metropolitan areas, actions like this simply must be undertaken. (Time expired)


Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Nehl)—In accordance with sessional order 104A, the second reading will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.