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Tuesday, 10 August 2004
Page: 26054

Senator McLUCAS (8:12 PM) —This evening I would like to bring to the notice of the Senate events that are occurring on the Atherton Tableland, an area just west of Cairns in Far North Queensland.

Senator Santoro —Are you going to talk about Queensland too? There you go!

Senator McLUCAS —I am going to talk about a federal program in Queensland, Senator Santoro—something that I have not yet heard you do. You continually talk about the state government. It is a shame you would not go back and recontest the seat of Clayfield, and then you could talk about that to your heart's content.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator McLucas, please address the chair.

Senator McLUCAS —The rural area west of Cairns is a group of small communities very much based on agriculture, with a population of almost 60,000. It is an area that has much going for it, but it faces an enormous set of challenges. There is a series of small townships on the Atherton Tableland interspersed with farmlands. It is a beautiful area of Australia, but it is an area which, as I said, is facing some difficulties. I have a very strong affection for the Atherton Tableland, because that is where I was born, and I will continue to advocate on behalf of tablelanders at every opportunity I can. But, like many rural communities, it has had to respond to and manage significant change over the past 20 or so years. Twenty years ago, there were two tin dredgers that used to dredge—probably inappropriately, given what we know now—creeks west of the town of Ravenshoe. With the collapse of the tin price, those two tin dredgers were packed up and sold, and we lost quite a considerable number of jobs as a result of that.

In 1986 we had the listing of the wet tropics as a World Heritage area. It was a policy that I absolutely agreed with, but it did result in considerable change and there was an immediate loss of jobs, particularly in the southern end of the tablelands. As a result of the listing of the wet tropics area there has been a considerable growth in tourism, but there is potential that is still not being achieved in that area. More recently we have had the deregulation of the dairy industry, with flow-on effects for farms. There has been amalgamation of farms, and some farms are turning to alternative production. We have had the initial buyout of tobacco licences by the state government, with the deregulation of the tobacco industry; and this year the complete loss of the tobacco industry to the Mareeba-Dimbulah area of the Atherton Tableland. It is a litany of sadness for people who live on the tablelands, and there is a sense of desperation in certain sections of the community.

In my view, though, it is not all bad news. There has been growth in the tourism industry, particularly in the bed and breakfast sector, an area that needs an enormous amount of encouragement. And the diversification that has happened in horticulture and the growing of new products—rare fruits in particular; the growth in the mango industry and the introduction of sugar cane to the tablelands—are things that we should be commending people for encouraging.

It was in the context of this enormous change, with the local federal member looking to defect from the National Party, with the state Tablelands electorate re-electing a One Nation candidate and with a looming federal election that Senator Ian Macdonald visited Mareeba on 12 September 2001 and announced that the Atherton Tableland was selected as the first region to be assisted under the Sustainable Regions program `because of restructuring of the tobacco industry, higher unemployment, lower income and other specific issues in the locality'. Then on 10 December 2001 Deputy Prime Minister Anderson announced that $18 million would be applied to:

... help the Atherton Tablelands region implement local priority projects, including minor infrastructure and skills building.

What is now known as ATSRAC—the Atherton Tablelands Sustainable Regions Advisory Committee—was born as a result of those announcements. There was plenty of fanfare and lots of photos in the paper, mainly of Senator Boswell telling the Atherton Tableland that they were in fact saved. The answer to any problem brought to the federal government's attention from the Atherton Tableland was, `Go to ATSRAC: they'll solve all your problems.'

In the first 12 months of the program there was little obvious activity. I expected that this time was being used for planning and strategy setting. The ATSRAC priorities are on the web site, and there is nothing you can really disagree with. But the dozen or so priorities do not describe a vision; they do not explain how the Atherton Tableland will change its economy and build a robust future. They say they will do things like: `encourage the development and retention of intellectual property within the region', `encourage the local development of tourism', `improve community wellbeing', `lead to new job creation' and `develop the enthusiasm, skills and optimism of the region's youth'. You could say that pretty well about any region in Australia. What we needed was a vision that described the future for the Atherton Tableland.

The work that was done in that first 12 months in my view did very little to bring the community together to show a way forward and say, `This is how we're going to get out of the difficulties that we face.' Those planning documents do not provide a blueprint for the future. They do not provide a vision that all tablelanders can get behind to promote and champion their community to potential investors and to themselves. This lack of effective and inclusive planning is one of the criticisms that I have of the program. The $18 million is essentially allocated to provide grants to projects that fit within the stated goals. Other funds are apparently used for administration of the program. ATSRAC itself is technically the committee which administers the program. It is a committee made up of the four mayors of Mareeba, Atherton, Eacham and Herberton shires. They are joined by Mr Peter McDade and Professor Bob Beeton, with an observer from the FNQACC. I want to place on record my recognition of each of these people's commitment to their local government area. They are strong advocates for their electorates.

Therein lies the problem. The reported culture of ATSRAC is of a committee of individuals defending their patch, not developing a shared vision and working to achieve it. I do not blame these individual mayors. They are simply doing what their voters ask of them. But I do blame the Deputy Prime Minister for not identifying that he was establishing a structure destined to be at best problematic and at worst dysfunctional. ATSRAC approved 27 projects to 16 June this year, and recently a further three projects have been announced. Every few months Senator Boswell comes to the tablelands to have his photo taken handing out cheques to grant recipients. Increasingly, following each of these grant announcements the level of disquiet and discord around the tablelands has grown and the number of angry telephone calls to my office about the applications of money has increased.

This is not to say that all of the projects are of little value. But it is my view, and it is a view shared by tablelanders, that all of the projects should have clear, sustainable long-term outcomes and clear objectives for which progress can be measured and which are developed with local input. Those are the first two regional priorities identified on the web site of the program. This is taxpayers' money, and taxpayers want value for their money. The charge of pork barrelling that is levelled now, by tablelanders themselves, is hard for the government to defend when projects that are being supported have limited or no identifiable benefit for the tablelands.

Senator McGauran —For example?

Senator McLUCAS —Just wait. Calls of complaint to my office grew. The singularly largest area of complaint is that private businesses, which are in direct competition with similar types of businesses, have been successful in attracting funds. One of the stated principles is that applications must be competitively neutral—in effect, projects must be supported by known competitors. An application, for example, for a timber workshop and gallery for the township of Tolga—which had a history in the timber industry prior to wet tropics listing—has been progressed. It is almost directly across the road from an existing successful timber workshop and gallery known as Tolga Woodworks. Any application is meant to include letters of support from potential competitors. The applicant went to Tolga timbers and said, `Will you provide me a letter of support?' The answer was obviously, `No, we won't,' but the project has been progressed. It is wrong when a government is interfering in the local economy at this level. If the money is applied, Tolga timbers—an existing business built up over 15 to 20 years—will go down the drain, thanks to ATSRAC and the federal government.

There was an application lodged by a very beautiful bed and breakfast establishment, seeking funds of $170,000, to develop a spa. That is not the right way we should use taxpayers' money to support one bed and breakfast establishment over the top of another. I have had long conversations with the owner of the establishment and he is quite rightly very distressed that his business has attracted this level of attention. But he also agrees that there was a better way to spend the money. It would have been better for all of those exclusive bed and breakfast establishments to come together and develop a marketing strategy. This money has not been applied appropriately.

Another area of complaint that people bring to my attention is the funding of projects that then disappear. An amount of $102,000 was given to Eacham Shire Council for the Malanda Dairy Heritage Centre. That has a terribly tragic history. The applicant, the Eacham Shire Council, contracted an organisation to manage the redevelopment of the factory or part of the factory. They ended up in such dispute with the Eacham Shire Council that they left town. The shire council then employed the mayor's son to operate the project. But if you go to Malanda to look at the dairy heritage centre you will find it is closed, and it has been closed for a long time. That is not good use of taxpayers' money.

An amount of $750,000 was allocated to a company called Nature Trust Australia for a kenaf industry development—one of the largest, successful grant applications. When I raised this issue in the media I received a phone call from someone saying, `I think the people who are the proponents of that development have moved south.' It became evident that the people who received the $750,000 were no longer on the tablelands. Where is the value to the economy of the Atherton Tableland of $750,000 when the development is not there anymore? I have subsequently found out, through questions on notice, that that money has in fact been returned. Had due diligence been undertaken, it would have revealed concerns prior to those moneys being allocated.

An amount of $150,000 has been allocated for another project to develop accommodation for transient fruit-pickers. It sounds like a legitimate application of funds. I have spoken to the proponent; he seems a decent enough bloke. He has not put in an application to the council yet. There is a long way to go before this project will in fact turn into any jobs or any beds for any of the seasonal workers who are currently in need of accommodation on the Atherton Tableland. But two projects have gained the most prominence in this whole story. The first one is the Atherton hotel. The Atherton hotel is a sweet little hotel in the middle of town. It is a standard sort of country pub. It has a bar at the front. It has lodged an application for some poker machines. A couple of nights a week it has things that I do not really approve of—topless barmaids and things like that. It is not the sort of place that I would usually go to. However, the Atherton hotel received $500,000 to develop 10 four-star hotel rooms, a 350-seat function room and stage and a 50-seat conference facility. Most people, who have any understanding of conference venues, know that you do not put them in a place where there is not much parking space or where the general clientele is more interested in whether it is Wednesday night and topless barmaid night. That is not good use of taxpayers' money.

Once again, were all of the other hoteliers and club operators in Atherton asked if they supported such a proposal? The answer was no. But this proposal has been approved—$500,000 of taxpayers' money—for a hotel which is in direct competition with four other hotels and a number of clubs in Atherton, much less Mareeba. There is no understanding of where conference facilities should be located and no understanding that people who want to go to a conference on the Atherton Tableland want to be in the countryside, not in town.

Senator McGauran —It has a good counter meal.

Senator McLUCAS —It does have a very good counter meal. That is true.

Senator Sherry —Julian has obviously been there!

Senator McLUCAS —But not Wednesday nights, Senator McGauran! But the doozey, the best one of all, was the $491,900 that was allocated to the Mareeba Wild Animal Park. The Mareeba Wild Animal Park apparently, according to ATSRAC, fitted within the priorities that were established for tourism infrastructure. But, when I read the tourism document—a very good document, funded through ATSRAC—I could not see how, using that document, you could advocate a wild animal park with zebras, lions and rhinoceroses and hippopotami as an appropriate adjunct to our tourism potential in Far North Queensland, where our attributes are the beauty of our nature. But ATSRAC decided that it would be. They gave $491,900 to David Gill about two months before he went bankrupt and went home to England. We cannot get this money back from the Mareeba wildlife park. It was a disaster in waiting. Anyone with eyes could have seen that that money was going to go nowhere. And the Deputy Prime Minister signed off on that money.

The other thing the Senate needs to understand is that there are two paths for approval under the ATSRAC process. It goes through the local organisation—ATSRAC, the regional advisory committee—but DoTARS does its own assessment of the application, its own due diligence, and makes its own recommendations to the minister. On my questioning of departmental officials during estimates on the last two occasions, they confirmed that all these projects had been given to the Deputy Prime Minister for approval. We cannot point the finger at the people on the tablelands; the finger needs to be pointed at the department and the minister. The minister approved nearly $500,000 to go to a wildlife park that went bust almost within minutes of receiving that money, and now we cannot get that money back.

I have written to the Deputy Prime Minister on two occasions now, asking for a meeting to talk with him—firstly, to express my concerns for the retention of the funds in that program so that we can actually do some good with the almost $9 million that is left and, secondly, to go through the detail of some of the information that people have brought to me that they do not feel confident about putting in the media themselves, because we are talking about small rural communities. I will be asking the Deputy Prime Minister, if he ever responds to my two letters, for a full audit of all the grants that have been applied. We need to know whether money is expended in line with the application; we need to know what the outcomes are, particularly in terms of job generation; and we need to assess the sustainability of each grant for ongoing economic value. Once we have done all that, we need to publish it so that confidence in this project can finally be built. More than half the money has been spent. I can see a little bit of a value, but certainly not $9 million worth. This program should be about bringing people together, not tearing them apart. Yet that is what is happening on the Atherton Tableland as a result of the Deputy Prime Minister's inaction.