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Monday, 1 December 2008
Page: 12019

Mr NEVILLE (4:18 PM) —I would like to make a contribution to the debate on the Nation-building Funds Bill 2008 and cognate bills. I spent 20 years in regional development and I think I know a little about it, but I do not see much nation building in the measures that we have heard about so far. There is lot of spin in them but not a lot of work being done to actually get projects to the line.

Apparently the Prime Minister thinks, ‘Once you leave Brisbane and cross the Pine River, you can hear the sound of banjo music.’ Inherent in that is an antirural, antiregional attitude, one that is entrenched in this legislation. His one-man war against rural and regional Australia has begun, and he is using the treasure chest built up by the previous coalition government to fund his battle.

Measures contained in the legislation will create the Building Australia Fund, the BAF; the Health and Hospitals Fund, the HHF; and the Education Investment Fund, the EIF. There is a lot to consider in this legislation, but I would like to start by looking at the overarching financial implications. This is a complete smash and grab: get what you can from wherever you can and hang the consequences. Do not say I am just being tough on the government; I am not. That is exactly what they did in the Keating era, leaving $96 billion worth of debt for the then new government of 1996 to pay off.

In Labor’s program we have got money coming from the existing budget surplus, money coming from the proceeds of the T3 sale and money coming from the perpetual funds established by the coalition government, but the most notable feature is that the money appropriated in this bill, almost down to the last cent, has come from the surpluses provided by the previous coalition government.

Not content with raiding the $2 billion Communications Fund or taking another $2.7 billion from the Future Fund, this typical Labor bill will release funds from the $5 billion Higher Education Endowment Fund and take another $7.5 billion from the budget to top up both the BAF and the HHF. Taking into account the total funds identified in the bill, the BAF, the HHF and the EIF will share around $26.3 billion at their inception in January next year, a full $14.7 billion short of the figure announced in this year’s budget, just six months ago.

It would seem that Labor’s eyes are considerably larger than its stomach when it comes to making promises to the Australian public. Nevertheless, today we are waving goodbye to the budget surplus and pinning our hopes on a government that is all talk and little action. I am all for nation building. It is something that I have tirelessly advocated throughout my time in parliament. I think that in times of national economic hardship it is wise to use the budget surplus to keep our businesses and communities afloat. But I am greatly concerned that this government is about using the hard-earned surplus and perpetual funds from the coalition in effect to buy positive headlines in cities, while leaving regional Australia behind.

Before I move to the body of my concerns about the Rudd government’s nation-building legislation, let me talk briefly about the government’s early development programs and the indications that they might give us on how the government is going to handle the big-picture items that are inherent in this legislation. Let us not mess around with this. We are not talking about little stuff when we start talking about nation building. Let us have a look at what the indications have been thus far, perhaps in some slightly smaller fields.

I want to touch on one early indication of the government’s attitude, and that is that the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government spent the first six months as minister criticising coalition programs that were hugely valuable for regional and rural areas, programs that brought jobs, services and development. The most shameful aspect of Labor’s approach is that, while attacking the Regional Partnerships program for an apparent lack of accountability, they designed a program that has no scrutiny or oversight.

Labor’s Better Regions Program is $176 million worth of pork-barrelling, with 90 per cent of it going to Labor seats. The parliament is unaware of what criteria are being used to assess and approve these projects. And the minister has the temerity to criticise my dissenting report, in which I argue the case for providing funding to commercial businesses—which would actually create jobs—instead of building toilet blocks. The minister must be a little embarrassed that his terms of reference for this inquiry deliberately excluded any mention of job creation, particularly with the current predictions of a six per cent—and, if you listen to the National Australia Bank, 6.5 per cent—national unemployment rate within the next two years.

I contend that genuine economic development, sustainability and viability in regional areas hinge wholly and solely on jobs. Perhaps if the minister actually lived in a regional area he might understand. Rural and regional areas have traditionally relied on one or two major industries, most of them agriculturally based, for their economic survival. But for years there has been recognition that regional areas must diversify or die. I have heard Labor members say when in opposition and when in government that the range of businesses, industries and services must provide a resilient platform for long-term survival. Yet it would seem from the terms of reference of the inquiry into Regional Partnerships and what may follow in its place that regional development in Australia will not take any of that into account.

One Labor member told me—and I do not intend to name him, because that would not be fair—that in the lead-up to the election he was granted 18 different programs under the government’s pre-election $176 million Better Regions Program. As I said, there are no guidelines for those. When I have asked ministers, parliamentary secretaries or indeed my government colleagues the answer has been, ‘They were election promises.’ For a $176 million-worth program you can tear up the rule book, yet you can nitpick day and night over a handful of projects that failed under Regional Partnerships.

In my electorate I worked very hard with commercial projects. I am a great believer in the concept that we must create employment, and I ensure that my electorate is diversified. Hinkler has the ninth highest tourism employment rate of 150 electorates—10.9 per cent of all jobs in my electorate are in tourism. Manufacturing accounts for around 8.4 per cent of local jobs; agriculture, 6.6 per cent; and construction, 10.6 per cent. Also, education and training and health and welfare contribute to the jobs profile. Going back to that tourism figure, I am quite sure that the Hinkler tourism job profile would not be as high if the coalition had not invested in a number of small to medium sized enterprises such as the one we inspected while we were on the inquiry, Snakes Downunder—an excellent reptile park. From humble beginnings, it is now a beautiful place to take kids where they can see all the Australian reptiles and wildlife against cameos that show these creatures in their natural environment. Another enterprise was Mammino’s ice-cream. Imagine, an enterprise in the little town of Childers—both these enterprises are in Childers—making an ice-cream that sells all over south-eastern Queensland. It is rich, beautiful ice cream, too. My wife keeps it well away from me!

You might ask: ‘Where does all this come together? What are you on about? What are you trying to say?’ I am not claiming all the credit. There are other factors, such as the expansion of tourism in Bargara and Hervey Bay. But just listen to this: over the last 20 years unemployment reached an all-time high. In February 1996—that is, the month before we took office as a coalition—the unemployment rate in Wide Bay was 19.9 per cent. The Wide Bay region, the Tweed, Western Sydney, one of the Victorian regions—the name of which eludes me for the present—and the Mersey region of Tasmania were traditionally the worst five. They were always in that group. Isn’t it ironic that in the month before we left office the unemployment rate in my electorate was one of the lowest in Australia, at 3.4 per cent. I contend that the development of small to medium sized industry played a significant part in that. I think that is what the government has to look at, and commercial projects should be a part of that. You cannot just repair halls, tidy up swimming pools and build playgrounds and toilet blocks. Important as those things are—and I am not suggesting they should be dropped—you must counterbalance them with a serious approach to major industry.

The government is suggesting that it might put some of those previous, bigger projects into the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. But, of course, there is no program for them in there, and I am doubtful that they would ever do it. So we are just going to cut all those commercial projects off to one side. To create jobs, to create vital infrastructure, we need flexibility, dynamism, entrepreneurship and—let me stress—diversification. When one industry fails in a regional area, if you have a diversified industry base—as I was trying to explain before—you are less prone to those rises and falls of unemployment and social dysfunction.

The coalition has long championed investment in hard infrastructure, which will improve productivity, living standards and business development—for example, $38 billion dollars went into AusLink programs 1 and 2. I have heard many of my Labor colleagues praise those programs. It was the coalition which established the $2 billion Communications Fund which would have financed ongoing telecommunications upgrades across the nation. It was the coalition that established the perpetual Higher Education Endowment Fund of $5 billion. But, perhaps most importantly, the coalition had the money in the bank to undertake these far-reaching programs. At that time, Australians were confident that the government had a grip on the national economy and were secure in the knowledge that every cent put forward in these infrastructure programs came from our own coffers, not from a national credit card, not from borrowing and not from going into debt. Indications over recent weeks suggest that things are going to be very different in the future. We have a government that thinks that a dollar sign is the equivalent of decisive action and a Prime Minister more interested in lecturing the global community than governing his own country.

The Prime Minister’s thought bubbles are bursting left, right and centre, particularly in the rough and tumble of telco politics. The fact is that the bids might be in for the national broadband network, but rural and regional Australians may have to wait eight or more years before they get high-speed broadband services. Just yesterday, Telstra chairman Don McGauchie admitted that the company could only provide high-speed broadband access to about 90 per cent of Australia. The benchmark has always been 96-98 per cent. Where is the other 10 per cent going to come from? The plan would seem to be—particularly since the Rudd government has come to office—to squander the $2 billion established for the specific purpose of rolling out upgrades to country areas. I think that is both unnecessary and shameful.

The real shame in this situation is that, if the coalition had retained government, our planned nationwide high-speed broadband network would have been making its debut at about this time. Under the coalition’s Australia Connected, all Australians would have been able to hook up to fast broadband next year, using a range of technologies to ensure everyone had the ability to access broadband. Under the plan, the less competitive rural and regional markets would have had the security offered by the $958 million OPEL contract, and our $2 billion Communications Fund—which I spoke about before—would have been there for future proofing, if that particular program needed upgrading or if there were holes to be plugged.

In fact, in my electorate, only one little corner, at Didcot, would not have been covered by the OPEL plan. OPEL would have had the whole electorate covered by high-speed wireless internet and, as well as that, three major areas of ADSL+2, in addition to what other companies, like Telstra, were offering. But it has been scrapped by the current government and regional and rural people have no guarantee that (a) the government is even going to give Telstra the contract, and (b) if it does, what will happen to the 10 per cent of Australians who are going to miss out anyhow? And I suppose you could add (c) there will not be any money there to do it because we have squandered the $2 billion that was earmarked to do those sorts of jobs. So when you look at it, it is really quite sad.

In the remaining minutes I would like to speak briefly about the inland rail. If the government really wants to excite people, it needs to do something like the Snowy Mountains scheme; it needs to excite the Australian population to think about something beyond itself, to provide a project which will have an employment component to it while it is being advanced. We have two companies who want to do that inland rail: ATEC, led by Everald Compton, and GATR, led by Vince O’Rourke. I have a longstanding interest in this. I think a north-south railway line from Melbourne to Toowoomba, or alternatively Melbourne to Brisbane, and perhaps later onto Gladstone would be real nation building—the sort of stuff to infrastructure that the Opera House is to the arts. We have heard a lot about that today but we seem to lack the will to drive projects like this into the future. It is not as if we do not have competent people doing that. Everald Compton already has a mandate from the Queensland government to do the section from Gladstone to Toowoomba. He is now seeking the mandate to go from Moree to Toowoomba. Vince O’Rourke, who is arguably one of the greatest rail men in Australia, is held in the highest esteem in New South Wales and Queensland. In the report The great freight task, he said:

We are doing too much patching. Why don’t we build some really good railways? On a modern railway from Melbourne to Brisbane, freight trains could make their journey in 14 to 15 hours. It would be overnight. It is the just-in-time manufacturing inventory, logistics and integration with the ports that this nation needs.

That is his vision. While we have people out there wanting to do this, it is a travesty that it lays waiting for governments to pick it up. I would urge the government, as it looks around for nation-building projects, to take up the vision that Everald Compton has so widely articulated. Let us start getting semitrailers off the roads, let us start opening up some of the most productive parts of Australia, let us get a modern freight system and let us get it soon.