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Monday, 29 November 2004
Page: 37

Senator STEPHENS (2:55 PM) —My question without notice is to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage, representing the Minister for Transport and Regional Services. Minister, can you confirm that the Deputy Prime Minister's own electorate of Gwydir has been awarded more than $2 million in funding under the Regional Partnerships program? Can you confirm that the projects include a $1.1 million grant for the construction of an ethanol plant in Gwydir, announced on 17 August this year? Can the minister advise if the Department of the Environment and Heritage or any of its agencies were consulted in the assessment process? Can the minister explain what role the Deputy Prime Minister had in the promotion, assessment and allocation of funding for this project?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —Here again we have the Labor Party criticising a project and criticising funding which will significantly help a regional community in Australia. The application that the senator refers to was recommended under the Namoi Valley Structural Adjustment Package by the New England Northwest Area Consultative Committee and the Namoi Valley Structural Adjustment Package Advisory Committee in June 2003. The Namoi package has been funded through the Regional Partnerships program, as the senator referred to. It was the Minister for Local Government, Territories and Roads, Mr Lloyd, who agreed to provide a grant under the Regional Partnerships program of $1.1 million to facilitate the establishment of an ethanol biorefinery plant in Gunnedah.

We believe the project will lead to the employment of an estimated 500 construction workers in the establishment phase and result in 50 new permanent employees. It is also anticipated that establishing a plant such as the one proposed will result in: an expansion of the local economy by about $169½ million, about $30½ million of extra household income, the creation of 694 permanent new positions throughout the economy and additional revenue for local grain farmers by increasing demand by 300,000 tonnes per year. This is an outstanding example of a regional partnerships project supported by the local community. I would like to say, wearing my hat as the environment minister, that we in the government believe it is very important that we do move to these alternative fuels. The government have helped support the biofuels industry more than any other government in the past. Not only do you get the benefit of using biomaterial and turning it into fuel which replaces fossil fuels—which is a win for the environment—but you also do it in a regional area, which can assist regional communities in the way that I have outlined.

It does not surprise me that yet another Labor senator has got up to criticise a significant regional investment, which will create all of those positive outcomes for the local economy and the national economy. Once again I suggest to Labor senators that, rather than wallow in their depression over the summer, they do something positive for themselves and do something positive for the community—get out and look at some of these regional programs, talk to some of the people in regional areas and look at how successful this Regional Partnerships program has been. That would be a far better use of Labor senators' time than wallowing in their own despair. These are all good projects. They are good for Australia, they are good for the economy, they are good for regional communities and they are good for building employment—particularly in areas that have been subjected to higher rates of unemployment than many other parts of Australia. We are very proud of this project amongst all of those Regional Partnerships projects. Rather than whingeing, whining, carping and despairing about these projects—rather than kicking regional economies and abusing area consultative committees and the personnel who put their hard work into building up their regional communities—I encourage the Labor Party to do something positive for a change.

Senator STEPHENS —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. I thank the minister for his answer, but there was a part of the question that he did not respond to, which was whether his department or any of its agencies were consulted in the assessment process.

Opposition senators interjecting—

Senator STEPHENS —I ask that because we need to understand why funds for this project were not granted under the government's $37.6 million biofuel capital grants scheme, administered by the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources. Given that there was an existing and more appropriate source of funding for this ethanol plant, why was it funded through the Regional Partnerships program?

Senator IAN CAMPBELL (Minister for the Environment and Heritage) —I could not hear the whole question because the senator's colleagues wanted to interject and criticise as usual. Senator Stephens is clearly concerned that a project that bid for a biofuels infrastructure grant under one program should get picked up under another one. I am absolutely certain that there will be high-quality biofuels projects right across Australia that missed out under the program that Senator Stephens referred to. Should that mean that they miss out on every other program? Of course not. The coalition will work with proponents of projects in regional Australia to ensure that we deliver good results. If it is under this program as opposed to another one, that is a good result for Australia, a good result for the local community and, might I add, a good result for the environment.

Senator Hill —Mr President, I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.