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Wednesday, 16 October 1996
Page: 4259

Senator NEAL(1.39 p.m.) —I would like to speak this afternoon on a matter of some particular importance to New South Wales residents at large, but particularly to residents of the Central Coast, that is, the issue of regional development or, should I say, the lack of interest in regional development by this coalition government. The budget was very much bad news for the regions. The government pushed the purported positives of the budget but, at the same time, the tarnished items, the items that were going to be damaging to the community at large, were kept hidden.

Tax rebates and other initiatives made families feel they were getting freebies, but there is no such thing as a free lunch, as I am sure the community will learn as time passes. The government is putting up fees for health and associated medical expenses, for our children's education and for aged care.

The government has particularly attacked regional Australia by targeting regional programs and closing government offices in regional areas. The coalition abolished the Department of Regional Development and this has sent a big signal to regional Australia, particularly to regional areas such as the Central Coast, that to this coalition government the people of regional Australia are not important. Frankly, I am a little bit surprised at the lack of interest in this issue that the National Party, the coalition partner, has shown. The major preoccupation of the National Party and its leader, Mr Fischer, seems to have been ensuring that the fuel rebate was retained for its constituency. But, at the same time, regional and country areas of Australia have been ignored. In fact, the whole department of regional development has been abolished.

Previously the Labor government provided $150 million for the regional development organisations, RDOs. For the short period of time that these organisations existed they were quite successful. The Orana gas pipeline was established by the Orana Regional Development Organisation (ORDO) with just $2 million. This RDO covered the Riverina and Orange areas and was able to secure from the New South Wales government $42 million. As a result of receiving those funds it was able to construct a pipeline. The areas now receive natural gas at a cost which is comparable to that in the metropolitan areas of Sydney.

Regional development is particularly important for the Central Coast as a unique and fast growing area north of Sydney. The cuts to regional development funds have really hurt the people of the Central Coast but do not seem to have caused a concern to be recognised by this coalition government. The Central Coast Regional Development Organisation—relatively new—received approximately $150,000 and was expected to receive further funding before the election. That has changed, of course. No further funding has been provided for RDOs whatsoever.

The RDO on the Central Coast was instrumental in trying to find further employment opportunities for young Central Coast residents. As you are probably aware, youth unemployment is a particularly large problem in areas outside major cities and certainly is a growing problem on the Central Coast. Unemployment has risen 2.6 per cent over the last month generally on the Central Coast, to 9.1 per cent. Youth unemployment in just one month has risen 4.5 per cent. Yet the vehicle for doing something about this problem, the Central Coast RDO, has no longer been provided with funding.

I would like to say a little bit about Bob Kennedy, who has been the chairman of the RDO on the Central Coast since its formation and who continues to attempt to do something about the problem of youth unemployment, despite the fact that the RDO is no longer funded. Bob Kennedy is the managing director of Masterfoods on the Central Coast, one of the largest employers.

As well as running an effective and successful business which continues to employ large numbers of people, he sees fit to spend his time and energies in furthering the interests of the community and has shown particular concern for the generation of employment—in particular, the generation of employment for our young people in the area. Despite the RDO being no longer funded, Bob Kennedy has continued, along with other members of the organisation, to run a forum and allow young people to have a voice and to play a role in seeking out opportunities for job promotion.

At the same time as the coalition abandoned the Department of Regional Development, it abandoned significant job programs on the Central Coast. Also, through a convoluted process, the government has cut flood mitigation funding in regional areas. The government had flood mitigation programs in the Department of Primary Industries and Energy for both urban and rural areas. Prior to regional development being wound down, urban flood mitigation was transferred to the Department of Transport and Regional Development. Included in this transfer was funding for the Gosford City Council amounting to $1 million for flood mitigation. The government then announced in the budget—lo and behold—that the Department of Regional Development would be abolished. But it failed to transfer the responsibility for funding for flood mitigation to any other department.

Losing the funds provided by the federal government is not only a tragedy, it is an extra loss for the area of the Central Coast. Previously, the funds provided federally were matched by both the state government and Gosford City Council. This means that the Central Coast community was three times worse off last year as a result of this decision.

All levels of governments acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with flooding problems, particularly in the area of the Central Coast which has had a rapid increase in urbanisation and a level of infrastructure development that it really is not capable of keeping up with. The Gosford City Council has budgeted to provide its one-third of the funds for the necessary flood mitigation works but, alas, in light of the federal government's failure to recognise the problem and continue the funding—as had been provided by the Labor government for the last few years—the funds available are not going to deal with the problem.

Work is necessary in the Wingello, Narara and Erina Creeks. Failure to deal with these problems will mean that businesses and homes are once again flooded—certainly a situation that I would not have thought this government would like to see.

The Gosford City Council now has to overhaul its total drainage program in light of this funding shortfall and will have to reschedule. The problems that were going to be dealt this year will not be dealt with for many years to come. Flooding on the Central Coast is a problem, but it is only one of a multitude of problems that regional areas have. I highlight it today because it indicates the priorities of this government. Despite it being a coalition government which includes the National Party and, despite what would be a normal assumption that the National Party would be seeing the interests of rural and regional areas as uppermost in their priorities, we see that regional areas are being forgotten. Putting this matter on the record, I would hope that the minds of those allocating funds might recognise the assistance required and give regional areas the priorities they deserve.

I have just received exactly 263 letters on this issue of flooding on the Central Coast with people explaining their concerns about flooding and how they see themselves affected. I would like to table them in the Senate.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Patterson) —Is leave granted?

Senator Woods —Come on.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Patterson) —Senator Neal, the convention is usually to ask the duty minister and if leave is not granted—

Senator NEAL —I am happy to provide the parliamentary secretary with a copy. They are all on identical terms, but signed by different parties.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Patterson) —   Leave granted. I just want to remind honourable senators that this is the second time today since I have been in the chair that that formality has not been pursued. I would suggest to all honourable senators that they follow the procedure that has been adopted in the Senate of showing the other side before they wish to table or incorporate an item as it would facilitate the proceedings of the Senate.

Senator Woods —Quite right.

Senator NEAL —That is the finalisation of my remarks. Thank you.

Sitting suspended from 1.50 p.m. to 2.00 p.m.