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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 76

Mr FITZGIBBON (1:34 PM) —This is my first speech in this place, at least for the 41st Parliament. The timing for me is very fortuitous. It is wonderful to see the Prime Minister in the chamber. One of the great things about first speeches is the way they draw both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition into the chamber on a more regular basis. That is not a criticism. They are both busy men, of course. But it is good to see them in the chamber listening to what the backbench has to say.

The timing is also fortuitous for me in this lead-up to question time because it gives me an opportunity to congratulate you again, Mr Speaker, on your rise to such high office. I wish you the very best in your endeavours. I congratulate Deputy Speakers Causley and Jenkins on their re-election. Best wishes also go to all members of the Speaker's panel. The other reason that the timing is fortuitous for me is that it gave me the opportunity to listen to the member for Wakefield. I congratulate him on his contribution as well as all of those other new members who have already made a contribution in this place. I have done my very best to listen to as many as possible and all have been, in my view, excellent contributions.

The election that brought these new members to this place put them on a very steep learning curve. I am sure that many of them are learning that that is the case already. The first thing they will learn is that, at least for a little while, they become very small fish in a very big sea. Some will come out of that dilemma more quickly than others and some never will. But, regardless, I am sure they will enjoy their experience in this place. Unfortunately, the second thing they will learn is that this chamber plays an almost irrelevant role in the formulation of policy in this place. Rather, effectively it is little more than a rubber stamp for executive government in this country. This has always been a source of disappointment for me. I think that collectively, on both sides of the House, we should continue to strive to improve that situation and restore the power, influence and relevance of the House of Representatives chamber and, for that matter, the Senate chamber.

They will also quickly learn that the primary mechanism in this place for holding the executive to account—that is, of course, question time—is little more than a farce. Question time in the House of Representatives has become another driver of public cynicism towards the parliament. It is a great shame that interest in our most important institution continues to fall and that, in my view, support for our most important institution continues to be in decline. On a much happier front I believe those new members will find the committee system an effective tool as local members. Being a committee member is a rewarding experience and their best opportunity to become acquainted with members on the opposite side of the House. That was certainly my experience when I first came to this place some 8½ years ago, and I maintain some strong friendships across the chamber as a result of those experiences.

Much has been said about the election of 9 October and I do not want to use up too much of the limited time I have available dwelling on that result. But I do want to say a couple of things. First of all, as members of the opposition it is important for us to accept with grace the people's verdict, and we certainly do so. But that should not prevent us from being a little bit angry about the government's main campaign pitch being based on a lie. I note that the introductory remarks in the Governor-General's speech on Tuesday included the following paragraph:

The government was re-elected on a platform that emphasised strong economic management, a determined role in world affairs, and faith in the capacity of Australians to exercise choice in their daily lives.

This, of course, is code for a much different statement, and I want to attempt to reinterpret it for the House. The government was re-elected on a platform of fear—fear of an interest rate rise and fear of losing the protection of the United States—and faith in the government's ability to foster fear and insecurity in the Australian electorate.

We all know that the government had no basis on which to claim that the election of a Labor government would inevitably lead to an interest rate rise. Despite the fact that the nation's leading economists rejected this claim by the Prime Minister and his government, the Prime Minister in particular continued to peddle his spin. This also applies to the government's determination to develop the perception in the community, in the minds of the Australian people, that Labor's very reasonable proposition that our troops in Iraq should come home sooner rather than later was somehow going to pose a threat to our most important alliance—that is, of course, our alliance and friendship with the United States. It is an alliance and a friendship built by, more than anyone else, the Australian Labor Party. I make these points because they are relevant to the issue of the extent of the Howard government's mandate—something we debated in this place during the matter of public importance debate yesterday.

There is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the government's multimillion-dollar scare campaign on interest rates was a seminal determinant of the electoral outcome, and I am sure most people who are being honest with themselves in this place would agree with that contention. But this does not mean that the government has a mandate from the Australian people to pursue an ideologically based agenda which will inevitably divide rather than unite the nation.

At the forefront of this agenda is the government's determination to push its obsession with further shifting the balance of our industrial relations system. If asked to nominate one single attitude which more than any other underpins the Australian character most would nominate the Australian belief in a fair go. Labor believes workplace based and flexible industrial laws are critical to productivity growth and Australia's international competitiveness.

Mr Cadman —As long as the union controls it.

Mr FITZGIBBON —That is why we pioneered the enterprise based approach. That does not sound much like a union driven scheme to me, I say to the member for Mitchell. But maintaining a balance is also very important. We all know, the member for Mitchell included, that the parties to any industrial bargain are never equal. Individual coalminers in my electorate could never hope to bargain on a level playing field with the Rio Tintos and Xstratas of the world. The opportunity to redress this imbalance lies in the opportunity to collectively bargain. As Labor proved in the eighties and nineties, maintaining a balance is also crucial to maintaining industrial harmony. Productivity growth will not flow from an environment of conflict and division; rather, what will drive a system of economic growth and our growing affluence will be a highly skilled, high-wage work force working in harmony and with a common goal.

There is no doubt that our growing affluence as a nation is pushing people away from a dependence on collectivism. Collectivism is for many people a need of the past. Now more than ever we are promoting individuality and, of course, independence. This is also partly the reason why so many community based groups and service clubs like Apex and Rotary and even our churches are struggling—with some exceptions, I should say, with respect to churches—for membership and participation. In this post-Fordist industrial era, the relationship between employers and employees has changed and is changing and it must continue to evolve, and I agree that our industrial laws must continue to evolve with it. But in many cases collectivism will remain a necessary ingredient for workplace justice and, as a legislature, we should allow it to play its very important role.

Nor should the government claim to have a mandate on the sale of Telstra. Let me assure the House—and all rural and regional members in this place, regardless of their political persuasion, I am sure will agree—that telecommunications services in the bush are not up to scratch. We do not enjoy anything like the services of our city cousins. What creates and promotes the great irony in the claim that the government believes it can catch up before the sale is the very establishment of Telstra Country Wide. I want to do an unusual thing now: I want to give a big rap to my local Telstra Country Wide team, headed by a great guy by the name of Phil Lammert. They have done a fantastic job in improving Telstra services in my electorate. We are not there yet but certainly the gap has been closing. This is the irony: the gap is only closing because the government, in a determination to close the gap, was prepared to create Telstra Country Wide and throw money at it. It is only money, and good management, which will bring country services up to something anywhere near what our city cousins have.

Having made that point, I ask the simple question: what happens in the next round of technological improvement, when there is no Telstra Country Wide and there is no additional bucket of money to improve Telstra services in the bush? There will not be another Telstra Country Wide and there will not be another bucketful of money if Telstra is fully privatised, because the political imperative will have gone. When Telstra is privatised we will no longer be able to put pressure on the government as the majority owner. If there is no pressure on government, there is no Telstra Country Wide mark 2, mark 3 or mark 4 and there is no additional bucket of money. So let us not kid ourselves. There is only one way to ensure that Telstra services in the bush come close to keeping pace with the services enjoyed by those who live in our capital cities, and that is to keep political pressure available and to keep Telstra in majority government hands.

I have now been a member of this place for almost nine years—this is my fourth election. I want to thank the people of my electorate for once again showing faith in me and re-electing me—not unanimously of course, as that would be a strange sort of democracy, but by a majority. I rededicate myself to working very hard as their local member and, on every occasion, putting the interest of the electorate first. On reflection, the electorate has changed quite a deal since I was elected to this place almost nine years ago, and I am sure that is the case for all members in this place. Fortunately some will have experienced positive economic growth and a large range of benefits, and some will have experienced a decline and may be doing things a little tougher than they were all those years ago.

In my first speech in this place I made the point that my electorate produces the lion's share of the coal produced in New South Wales and, I think, almost half the energy produced in the state of New South Wales. Those points remain true today. The difference is that back then the coal industry was the largest employer, but these days we are producing twice as much coal with half as many people as we had 10 years ago. On that basis, over the past decade we have had an enormous shift in our economic base. Coal continues to play a major role and continues to be a very large employer, but in many senses a leading employer has given way to the services sector—in particular, wine, wine tourism and many associated businesses, including many in the small business sector.

Retail also continues to grow as a major employer. Our local CBDs are growing and rejuvenating themselves. In the southern part of the electorate, the Hunter Economic Zone promises to become the largest industrial park in New South Wales and will therefore bring a whole new range of employment opportunities and further diversify the electorate of Hunter. This substantial local economic growth is very welcome, but, as you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Causley, with growth always come growing pains. The unemployment rate in parts of the electorate remains far too high and a massive skills gap, as we further diversify as an electorate, remains the greatest single hurdle to addressing the situation. Our physical infrastructure has not kept pace with demand. We have bottlenecks in our coal chain—the means by which we get our coal to the port of Newcastle—and our roads infrastructure is hopelessly inadequate. Our local roads are experiencing gridlock as economic growth continues and moves ahead of infrastructure planning. Our highway planning and funding is hopelessly behind, exacerbating the problems on those local roads and, I must say, putting lives at risk—not only the lives of local residents but the lives of the very many thousands of people who travel through my electorate each day, usually from Sydney, up the New England Highway to the Queensland border.

One of the great solutions to that problem, of course, is the construction of what we know as the Kurri Corridor, or the F3 link between a town called Seahampton and another called Branxton—a road project which I thought was all but ready to be constructed when I was elected to this place nine years ago. It was almost there, but, very sadly, still not a sod has been turned. Now I see the Deputy Prime Minister entering into a political game with the New South Wales government. The Kurri Corridor is part of the national highway system and therefore is totally the responsibility of the Commonwealth.

It is now something like a $350 million project—a big-ticket item. So what did the Deputy Prime Minister do in his AusLink announcement last year? He offered $250 million for a $350 million project. What does that mean? It simply means that the highway cannot be constructed until the balance of that funding is found. Where is the political fix? Where does the Deputy Prime Minister look for that additional funding? He looks at the New South Wales government, an organisation he knows is simply not in a position to meet that demand for funding.

This is also true when we consider health infrastructure in my electorate. It is also true when we consider our educational infrastructure. While kids at the King's School continue to enjoy the best sporting facilities in the country, kids in my electorate continue to sit in large classes in demountable buildings without airconditioning and without adequate access to broadband services. Some of our local hospitals are becoming no more than polyclinics. While I know that technology is largely driving the centralisation of our health services, it should never be an excuse to gut our local community services. At a time when we should be empowering local communities and bringing decisions about our local hospitals back to the people who understand the needs of our hospitals most, we continue to take those decisions further and further away.

I want to quickly make this point. The best way of addressing these issues is to deal with that major fault in our federation—that is, the continual buck shifting and blame shifting that takes place between federal and state governments. We in this place, notwithstanding political differences in other areas, should be working together, united, to deal with those issues posed by federation, to stop the buck shifting, so that in all our local communities we can return the dividend of efficiencies to our local people. (Time expired)