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Wednesday, 9 November 2016
Page: 3361


Mr FITZGIBBON (Hunter) (15:13): As the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources scurries back to his office to hide away, I can inform the House, if they did not see it, that the Deputy Prime Minister had an opinion piece in The Australian on Monday. In that opinion piece he laid bare the economic, social and political philosophies he brings to his role as Deputy Prime Minister. That is right: it was a pretty short piece! I assume he penned the piece in case his philosophies until this point had been lost in translation. What he did not do in that piece, of course, was outline any plan for the nation or indeed any plan for rural and regional Australia.

He did confirm a few things. He confirmed that he is truly a conservative—someone who supports the status quo and does not like change. This is the minister who leads a party that represents nine of the 10 poorest electorates in this country, yet he looks for no change in his thinking. He is always looking back; he is never looking forward.

He also confirmed that he loves 19th century technology. There was not a word about innovation in his 500-word piece.

We did hear a little about dams. The Deputy Prime Minister said he is going to have a dam here, a dam there and a dam everywhere—every town and community is going to have a dam. We are going to have a dam-led recovery. I can make this prediction right here and now: the Deputy Prime Minister will never build a dam in his time in this place. There have been two very significant, important water projects in recent years, both of them designed, thought of and built by the Labor Party: Chaffey Dam, which the Deputy Prime Minister often likes to claim credit for, wrongly; and of course the Midlands irrigation project in Tasmania—wholly and solely a Labor project.

He also confirmed in his speech something we already knew: he hates renewable energy. He hates renewable energy so much that he blames renewable energy for pushing over those transmission towers in South Australia. Windmills and solar panels pushed those steel transmission towers over. He also made a revelation: he does not like kitchen renovators. In that same context, he also demonstrated that he does not understand the services sector—that is 70 per cent of our output, by the way—and, therefore, certainly does not understand the Australian economy.

There was one other thing we learned from the minister in his piece: the closure of the Hazelwood power station is Labor's fault. The closure of a 45-year-old brown-coal-fired generator in Victoria is all Labor's fault. That is a revelation.

Of course, what the piece lacked was any plan whatsoever for the country. Certainly there was no plan for rural and regional Australia. There was no vision, no strategy, nothing on productivity and nothing on sustainability. Take his own portfolio. This is true of the agriculture sector on this minister's watch. Productivity has flatlined. Profitability is variable and very patchy. Those working in the grains industry and dairy industry in particular are struggling, with no help from this minister. But it gets worse—much worse. Every budget cut we have seen from this government since the 2014 budget, their first budget, has hit adversely and disproportionately those living in rural and regional Australia. Whether we are talking about Gonski and school funding or higher education, it hits the bush hardest. Medicare cuts make things much worse for people living in rural and regional Australia. In our public health system, to state the obvious, bulk-billing rates continue to fall. As to cuts to child care, the critical mass is always lacking in rural towns, so the impact is disproportionate. The piece de resistance, of course, is the national broadband network—an inferior plan rolled out slower and deserting rural and regional Australians.

The minister's crowning glory is his agriculture white paper. We waited forever to get it and it said nothing. It has disappeared without trace. I ask members: when was the last time they heard anyone, either inside or outside this place, refer to the minister's agriculture white paper? It is simply a fizzer. It is a dud. This is a minister and a government without any care for rural and regional Australia. Minister Joyce thinks it is all about sound bites. Putting on an Akubra, going out into the bush, taking some selfies with journalists—that is his plan for the bush. He is full of spin and rhetoric and has no ideas for rural and regional Australia. They are suffering as a consequence. We see inequality grow between capital cities and the bush. We see data coming in all the time that we are more likely to be sick and more likely to die younger than our city cousins, and yet this minister and his government have no plan.

More recently we have had the backpacker tax. What a debacle this has been. Let us quickly go through the history. It was the tax commissioner who originally expressed concern that backpackers were ticking the box declaring themselves residents for tax purposes. That concerned the commissioner. He took the matter to the AAT and secured a ruling. He informed the government that, from now on, unless they did something about it, he was going to start charging backpackers not zero tax but 32.5 per cent. The government could have done something immediately. They knew that backpackers were already falling away for a whole range of reasons. What a genius this government is! 'Backpackers are already falling away, so we have an idea—we'll put a tax on them and only make the matter worse.' They could have acted. They could have immediately changed the definition around backpackers and residence. They could have legislated for a zero tax rate. But instead of acting, they saw the dollar signs. The Treasury told them they could secure $540 million of revenue if they just went along with the tax commissioner. And that is exactly what they did. They put their revenue interest ahead of farmers, growers and tourism operators in this country, particularly hitting those in rural and regional Australia.

Then we had an election campaign. They thought they could get away with this. 'We'll demonise foreign workers'—which of course is what the minister was doing today—'and say this is all about getting an equal do for Australians.' But of course it did not work for them. Halfway through the election campaign, under enormous pressure, what did they do? They concocted a plan. 'We'll say we're having a review'—implying that after the election we will have no backpacker tax. But at the same time they continued to spend the $540 million. Right through that election campaign they continued to spend the money. Finally, in late September, many months later—this is the mob that talked about uncertainty for growers and tourism operators, and growers in particular—they finally came up with a plan. They said, 'We will go to 19 per cent instead. Nineteen sounds pretty good.' There was no modelling, as has been confirmed in the Senate inquiry. There was no measure of the impact on the wider economy. There was certainly no modelling of the impact on those working in the agriculture sector. Notwithstanding the fact that growers, and farmers more generally, lined up at the Senate committee to tell the senators that 19 per cent is still too high, the government are completely ignoring them.

So today they have taken a new tack: now Barnaby Joyce is the workers' friend. He is not talking about—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Mr Coulton ): The member for Hunter—

Mr FITZGIBBON: Now the Deputy Prime Minister is the workers' friend. He has given up the debate about the tax. He has given up even feigning any concern for farmers and growers in this country or, indeed, those working in the tourism sector. He is now the workers' friend. And he has concocted this fiction that somehow backpackers are going to be an advantage, in terms of taxation, to local residents. That is the biggest load of rubbish I have ever heard. The Deputy Prime Minister should come in here, correct the record and apologise to all those in the Australian community, who he is misleading. More importantly, there are a few other people that need to get on their feet in this place. I think of the member for Mallee, the member for Dawson, the member for Flynn, the member for Page—

Mr Rick Wilson interjecting

Mr FITZGIBBON: I am going to ignore you, just to make it worse! These are people who are lions in their electorates! They are out there spruiking their wares and talking about rural and regional Australia and what great things they are doing—again 'a dam here, a dam everywhere'. It will never happen. But, when they get down here to Canberra, they fall right into line. They have deserted their constituents. They need to get on board. If the Senate amends that bill to 10½ per cent, and it comes back to the House, the member for Hinkler, the member for Riverina and others will need to come over here and, with the Labor Party, defend their constituents. (Time expired)