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Wednesday, 29 August 2001
Page: 30527

Mr NAIRN (2:58 PM) —My question is addressed to the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Would the minister outline to the House measures taken by this government to assist communities in rural and regional Australia? What additional measures has the government put in place?

Mr ANDERSON (Minister for Transport and Regional Services) —I thank the honourable member for his question and acknowledge his very real interest in these matters. The government has established a very impressive record in fostering regional development. In fact, when you total it, we have committed some $28½ billion over five years in specific programs supporting regional Australia. There are some 300 of them, believe it or not. When you range across from the Natural Heritage Trust, the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Control, Roads for Recovery, the Regional Solutions Program, the rural transactions centres, More Doctors Better Services, and Agriculture— Advancing Australia, it is a very impressive list.

We have overseen a quiet revolution in the way that we do business with rural and regional communities. We do it in partnership. We do not come along now with a plan out of Canberra and say, `This is what you will wear whether you like it or not because Canberra knows best.' We have an open toolbox approach: we have a range of programs that rural communities can access. It works very well and rural communities appreciate it very much. It is about reconnecting rural and regional Australia, bridging the divide to ensure that they recognise that, at a time of increasing prosperity and opportunity in this country, undergirded by economic reform under this government, rural and regional Australia are not left behind.

The Stronger Regions Program announced today is another significant step forward in the journey that we are taking towards a completely revitalised and strong rural and regional Australia. The centrepiece of it is the $100 million Sustainable Regions Program to help local leaders and local communities meet the challenge of change. To be honest, it is something that I do not think we have always managed as well as we might have. The ALP committed us to trade reform in the early 1990s. It was supported by farm leaders and, certainly, it was supported widely across the range. But, frankly, not enough thought was put into how we would cope and help those communities that were going to wear the brunt of change. Today we have taken a very significant further step to ensure that communities that are experiencing very high unemployment, low levels of household income, a lack of investment and lack of job opportunities in rural, regional and remote Australia and outer metropolitan areas have a more effective mechanism to ensure that their problems are addressed.

I also announce that, from November this year, the federal government will pick up the bill for 40 per cent of Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service charges across agricultural industries. This is an area where the ALP could never get it right. They moved from 100 per cent payment by the government to 100 per cent payment by industry, with a system that was out of control and that was loaded with surplus inspectors who were then billed to people who were paying for the services. At one stage, I think, it rose to a total cost, to an industry much smaller than it is today, of about $120 million. Ministers like Kerin and the would-be Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, the member for Hotham, were utterly unable to reform it. We have brought the costs down through reform, and today I have announced that there will be a further reduction of 40 per cent from November this year. I have also indicated that we will be ensuring that national competition policy works to the advantage of rural and regional Australian communities.

I was also asked about alternative policies. There has been the whiff of a policy—a couple actually—from the member for Batman. The whiff came in a graph—they do love graphs! We got a graph put out on regional development funding: `The official story', they call it. I suppose members cannot quite see it here but we love these Labor graphs— it is just a pity that they cannot be more accurate. The whiff of policy is that they want to take us back, presumably, to when they did a lot on regional development. I have just outlined policies from this side of the House for rural and regional Australia which come to between $5 billion and $6 billion a year. Labor has a graph out saying that they were spending—wait for it!—$200 million a year on regional development, and their graph shows that, under those programs, it dropped away to virtually nothing under us, so they claim that we ought to go back to their way of doing things: $200 million a year. In contrast, there is close to $6 billion a year under the way in which the Liberal and National Party governments have approached regional development. The real pity of all this is that what we have had is a clear demonstration that my opposite number, the ALP spokesman for regional development, is still lost in that land where he believes that Canberra knows best: that regional development is all about having some committees and some bureaucrats who will do a little bit of talking but will not actually work in partnership with the great regions of this nation, where seven million Australians live, to ensure that they grasp a strong and secure future.