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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 12008

Mr HARTSUYKER (12:19 PM) —by leave—It gives me great pleasure to speak in the Main Committee on the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008, the Nation-building Funds (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 and the COAG Reform Fund Bill 2008. During the term of the former Howard government we saw unbridled growth. We saw the economy increase in size by some 50 per cent. We saw the longest period of uninterrupted growth in the history of this nation under the stewardship of the Howard government. That situation has changed and we are now in the grip of a very significant economic slowdown. Unfortunately, during all the growth that this country enjoyed, state Labor governments neglected their responsibility to continue to invest in infrastructure. Sadly, when you look around the states, so much of this nation’s infrastructure has been neglected and run down. So many issues in the field of infrastructure remain unresolved.

One of the really disappointing things I have seen as a member of this House since 2001 was the federal government investing in infrastructure only to have the state government at the same time take away its support for investment in infrastructure. We see no more glaring example of that more recently than with regard to the Pacific Highway. Substantial federal funds were devoted to the highway, but in the latest New South Wales state budget what did they do? Did they put their shoulder to the wheel and increase funding for this very important transport corridor? Did they ruck in behind the federal government and provide much-needed added assistance to get the highway completed as quickly as possible? No, they did not. What did they do on the issue of the Pacific Highway? They pulled $300 million in funding out of this vital transport corridor. That is $300 million of funding which would have created safer roads and provided more efficient transport of freight. That is $300 million that is desperately needed by the people I represent. So we had the federal government putting funds into the Pacific Highway at the same time as the New South Wales state government were taking funds out of it. When I look at these bills, I think that investment in infrastructure is an important issue and a good thing to do but, with sadness, I think of the fact that, just as quickly as we put the funds in at a federal level, New South Wales will be taking them out the back door. It is something that this parliament needs to guard against. We need to have performance indicators that guarantee that federal funding is matched or contributed to by state funding rather than allow incompetent and moribund state governments to pull vital funding from vital projects.

I would like to focus for a moment on the bills before the House relating to the Building Australia Fund, which relates to capital investment in transport, communications, energy and water infrastructure. The fund will be used for projects like roads, railways, urban transportation and ports. It was interesting to note in the recent budget announcements in New South Wales the potential to pull funding from the Port Waratah coal loader and the area around the port of Newcastle. For a state government to reduce funding to a port at this vital time, a time when we still have bottlenecks at our ports, just flies in the face of good sense.

The education fund will be used for capital investment in higher education infrastructure and vocational education and training. Presumably it will be funding such things as capital works at our universities and TAFEs. We also have the very important Health and Hospitals Fund. For too long state governments have run down the health infrastructure. For too long state governments have failed to build infrastructure that is vital to good health in this country. As a First World economy, a First World nation, we should not have facilities in the area of health that belong in last century and, in some cases, in the century before.

The Building Australia Fund will be made up of the remaining proceeds of the T3 sale, assets from the Communications Fund and an amount from the budget surplus, and it is important to note that these things are dependent on funding from budget surpluses. Most recently we have had D day—deficit day—the admission by the Prime Minister that we may well be, and are likely to be, heading for a deficit. So the question remains before this House: what does it mean for the future of infrastructure investment when we may be facing what has been euphemistically called a ‘temporary deficit’? What the Treasurer and the Prime Minister mean by a ‘temporary deficit’ is yet to be defined. One thing we do know of Labor: ‘temporary’, when it comes to Labor’s deficits, can mean a long, long, long time.

One thing that really concerns me in the area of communication is the fact that part of the funding for this is coming from the former Communications Fund, a fund that was set aside not only to ensure that people who live in regional and rural Australia have access to quality technologies that are known about today but also to provide for technologies that we do not yet know exist—technologies that are to come in the future. So that begs the question: under this new regime, who is going to provide regional and rural Australia with those new technologies that it will need to be competitive and to grow and that it will need if it is going to export to the rest of the world? It is a question that remains unresolved—and it is an important question.

I know that people in my electorate are concerned about the future of their telecommunications. I know that they are wondering what is going to happen with this national broadband network. We have a situation where the Rudd Labor government was going to provide fibre to the node to 98 per cent of all Australians, at a cost of $4.7 billion. Well, now we know that it is not going to be able to meet that promise in all likelihood. The question remains: how is the Labor government going to provide fibre to the node at a cost of $4.7 billion from taxpayers’ funds, create a commercial return and deliver that to 98 per cent of the population? It appears, tragically, that it may not be able to achieve that.

The alternative to not achieving delivery of fibre to the node to 98 per cent of Australians is that they may pour in a whole lot more of taxpayers’ funding. What will be the cost of moving from, say, 90 per cent of households serviced with fibre to the node to 98 per cent? Will it be $10 billion? Is it going to be $15 billion? It would be a very significant cost blow-out from $4.7 billion if you were going to have to spend $10 billion or $15 billion to fulfil your commitment to the Australian people—an ironclad, rolled-gold guarantee to deliver fibre to the node to 98 per cent of the population. Or, to take another alternative, are they are going to use some allegedly inferior technology—which is basically what they implied during the 2007 election campaign—such as wireless? During the 2007 election campaign, wireless was a bad thing. Wireless was such a bad thing that, on coming to office, they cancelled the OPEL contract, took away the access of people in regional and rural Australia to improved broadband services that were happening there and then and replaced that with a far-off promise of this mystical 98 per cent fibre to the node to be delivered in five years—or perhaps eight years, depending on where you live. Who is going to miss out and how long they are going to miss out for is still to be determined.

We have got Senator Conroy over in the Senate performing backflips with pike, trying to pull together a process that is obviously failing and trying to get the government out of a jam because they made some promises that they were unable to fulfil. The tenders have come in. They are not getting the sorts of results they were looking for. Telstra put in a non-conforming bid. Where is this process leading? I can tell you: it is leading to long and protracted delays for people in regional and rural areas in getting access to the sorts of telecommunications services they need to run their businesses, their hospitals and their schools. It is all out there in the ether. Kevin Rudd and his government are big on spin. The hollow men are out there; the publicity and spin machine is working double time to hide the fact that they are not going to be able to deliver.

Health is vitally important, and you have to give credit where credit is due: I will commend the Rudd Labor government on the Health and Hospitals Fund. I think that is a very good initiative. I regret the fact that much of these funds are going to have to be used due to the neglect of state Labor administrations. But it is a welcome step in the right direction.

In my electorate there is no greater need than for an upgrade to hospitals, particularly in Kempsey. Kempsey District Hospital is in desperate need of an upgrade. A recent OH&S report on Kempsey hospital said it was a good hospital run by dedicated staff, but it has infrastructure that belongs in another age—infrastructure that is not 21st century. It is infrastructure that barely coped with the 20th century. The report said:

The Hospital no longer meets the health care needs of the community or the health and safety requirements of staff. The Hospital does not come close to meeting current accepted health facility design guidelines and building standards. Clinical and office areas are no longer suitable for the purposes for which they are being used.

The report found that cleaning equipment was being stored in hallways. Patients are regularly left in hallways because of the lack of space. Some single rooms in the High Dependency Unit are not big enough to use resuscitation equipment or ventilators in. Here we have a facility that is so outdated and overwhelmed by the demands for its services that it is just not able to cope. Kempsey District Hospital should be a prime candidate for funding under the national Health and Hospitals Fund, and I recently presented a petition to this House to that effect. I commend the government for the Health and Hospitals Fund.

Health is a major issue. The North Coast Area Health Service claim that they are somehow going to be able to maintain services while cutting 400 jobs from the North Coast of New South Wales. In an almost Orwellian statement, they came out and said, ‘We are going to cut 400 jobs, but this will enable us to deliver more and better services.’ How do you deliver more services with fewer nurses? How do you deliver cleaner hospitals with fewer cleaners? How do you deliver a better maintained facility with fewer maintenance workers? It leaves Yes, Minister in its wake. A bureaucrat, Chris Crawford, of the North Coast Area Health Service has come out and made a statement that they are going to cut 400 jobs but that this will allow them to deliver more and better services. It is outrageous.

I conclude by referring to the North Coast corridor in relation to the Pacific Highway and the east coast rail line. They are vitally important links in our national infrastructure but, as I mentioned earlier, unfortunately the New South Wales government has stripped funding from the Pacific Highway. There was very heavy investment by the previous federal government under AusLink 1, and it continued under AusLink 2. To its credit, the current government has largely continued that funding. It is vitally important to reduce the accident rate and to ensure that our transport is moving efficiently and effectively. There is strong population growth along the North Coast of New South Wales and strong growth in the transport task between Sydney and Brisbane. It is vital that we continue that upgrade and vital that all major centres in my electorate of Cowper are bypassed as quickly as possible. The bypasses at Kempsey, Macksville, Urunga, Coffs Harbour-Woolgoolga and Ulmarra are vitally important projects and they must be done as quickly as possible.

What does the withdrawal of $300 million do? I guess if you asked the North Coast Area Health Service they would say, ‘It speeds it up; we will be able to build the road faster by pulling $300 million out.’ Sadly, the people of the North Coast know that is not the fact. The people of New South Wales know they will again be waiting longer and longer for the completion of this road. It has taken far too long to get the Pacific Highway to the level of duplication between Sydney and Brisbane that is currently being achieved. It just cannot be the subject of costcutting. The New South Wales government must be required by the federal government to reinstate that $300 million so that the project can continue.

The North Coast rail line is a vital link. The federal government was instrumental in investing in and upgrading that rail line. We should continue to invest in rail not only on the North Coast but right around the country. One of the secrets of an efficient and effective land transport system will be to get as much freight as possible off road and onto rail. If we do not do that, our roads are just going to clog up no matter what we do. It is vital that we continue to upgrade our North Coast rail line and our general rail infrastructure as quickly as possible. Infrastructure is vitally important to the North Coast of New South Wales. It is a strongly growing region. It needs investment and the investment must continue. I certainly trust that the federal government will continue to invest in the North Coast of New South Wales, as we have very urgent need indeed.