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Lakes Entrance: address at Community Luncheon, 1 February 2001

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1 February 2001


Subjects: Gippsland visit; road funding; Networking the Nation.


Thank you very much Mr Shire President. Peter McGauran my ministerial colleague, members of the local council, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m told that this is the first visit since according to the Melbourne Age, and who am I to argue with the Melbourne Age, since 1938 of a serving Prime Minister to this part of the world. Well whether that’s true or false it is the first occasion as Prime Minister that I’ve been to this part of the world although I have on a number of occasions visited the electorate of Gippsland and I particularly acknowledge the presence of my good friend and former member Peter Nixon at whose invitation I first paid a visit I think in 1976 as a very junior minister to part of this electorate.   

But Peter was right when he said that I wanted an opportunity to spend more than a cursory second or minute or two to actually talk to people and try and understand what their priorities were. These gatherings bring together everybody who’s doing anything in the community. And they remind us of the great volunteer glue that holds Australian society together. And wherever I go, particularly in the non-metropolitan areas of Australia, one finds groups of volunteers that are working together probably more than ever. Now one of the reasons for that is that some of the challenges of smaller communities are greater now than they used to be and the need to work together has been brought about through force of circumstances as well as by the natural inclination of people to get together and to help each other.

But there’s always been a wonderful community spirit and earlier when I arrived at Lakes Entrance and I went to the Rotunda and launched that manual on the monitoring of water quality and had an explanation given to me afterwards of the different groups of people that comprise the water monitoring group - people in business, people who have had a life long commitment to the environment, school children, and so on - and it was just another reminder to me of how tremendously important that sense of local cooperation and local volunteerism is to a community such as here in Lakes Entrance, and communities like it all over Australia.

We face an interesting situation in Australia at the present time in that at a national level, although this year is going to be tougher than last year partly because of the apparent slowdown in the American economy, our national economy is performing very well. We have a lower level of unemployment than a few years ago, we have quite low levels of inflation, we’ve undertaken a lot of necessary reforms, we have reduced our budget deficit and got it

into a healthy surplus although that’s necessary because when you have a stronger budget position you can return some of it by way of a social bonus to the community as we demonstrated last year in relation to our increased spending on defence, the increased commitment for doing something about the problem of salinity and water quality, the $1.6 billion program for improving local and other roads, and of course earlier this week I announced a very major program that will be very important in encouraging greater investment in science, and innovation, and technology which is so very important to the future of our country.

But whilst you look at it nationally, when you look at different communities around Australia you do find that not every part of Australia is feeling a sense of ownership in that national strength and that national prosperity. And one of the responsibilities I have as Prime Minister and one of the responsibilities that all of the members of the government have is to make certain that at a time of general national economic strength and wellbeing as far as is possible the benefits of that are spread throughout the community. And we have now over quite a lengthy period of time been trying to isolate and find out what are the needs of particularly non-metropolitan communities. About a year ago I spent a week travelling around regional parts of Australia and of course it’s something that I’ve done on a regular basis since I’ve been Prime Minister.

But during this weeklong visit to different parts of Australia it became apparent to me that there were a number of general concerns that people had. One of those general concerns was about health services, particularly as you got further out from the capital cities. Another concern was about the quality of local roads, particularly once again as you got further out from the large centres of population. And largely as a result of that we made certain that in last year’s budget there was a big injection of money into a program that over a period of years is going to deliver a lot more general practitioners into regional areas, and generally strengthen the flow of medical services back to country areas. Now many of you will immediately say well we’d like to see that happen very quickly and I understand that. A lot of you will say well it’s a while coming. I accept all of that and it’s not something that can be dealt with overnight. But the will is there and the commitment of $500 million in a new program was made in last year’s budget.

And I mentioned earlier the commitment we made to local roads. Now I’ve had a lot of representations from country people about the state of roads in the time that I’ve been Prime Minister. I’ve also had a lot of representations from people all over Australia about the price of petrol, not only since I’ve been Prime Minister but generally. And we sat down as a Cabinet last year and we thought about the question of the indexation of the excise. And that’s in the news today and I never duck things that are in the news today. I always think I should deal with them in an up front fashion.

But we made a decision and some of you will agree with it and some of you won’t. That’s the nature of decisions made by prime ministers and governments. We made a decision that it would be a better long term investment of $1.6 billion to inject it into additional road funding than to have a one off freeze in the excise adjustment because the value of that could disappear overnight with the price increasing as a result of a fluctuation in the world oil price. And after a few days even, and certainly after a few weeks and a few months people would not really think that anything long term had been done. And we decided that we couldn’t do both. We couldn’t freeze the excise and spend more money on roads because we had some other commitments, and we decided, rightly in my view - perhaps wrongly in the view of others but that’s as I say the democratic process - we decided to invest $1.6 billion into more spending on roads.

And that represents a 75% increase in the amount of federal money that goes direct to local councils for road funding and that will be of benefit over many years into the future. Because I do understand that with declining rate bases many of the non-metropolitan councils find it more difficult to maintain local roads and that they are so tremendously important to the travel and the needs of people the further you get away from the centres of population. I say that very deliberately because it wasn’t an easy decision. And we thought about it for a long time and we made a judgement and it’s a judgement that I believe in the long term will be of

greater benefit to the community because of the lasting value of improvement in the nations roads.

Now Mr Shire President, you were kind enough to thank the Government for a number of things and you then said like Oliver Twist, you dared to say more please. Well unlike what happened to Oliver I am happy to say there is more. And it so happens, and this is not I assure you in any way coordinated with the Shire President, I assure you that there is more. I am very pleased to announce today that the Government is going to make available out of the Networking the Nation programme - which incidentally is being funded out of the sale of the second part of Telstra - we’re going to make available an additional $5.8 million to enable Victorian councils to go online and to provide services to their local communities over the Internet. And many councils in rural and regional areas of Victoria and indeed in every other state of Australia currently lack the resources to develop on line delivery service.

And this project is going to enable Victorian councils to make services such as tenders, planning and building applications, new payment options and a range of information on community facilities available over the Internet. For example it would enable residents to comment on development proposals - you’ll have no absence of those, I’m sure - using the Internet, pay their rates on line - an interesting innovation - and improve the capacity of local businesses to sell to local government.

And this particular project has been recommended by the Networking the Nation board based upon a strategy put forward by the Municipal Association of Victoria. Now this is a proposal that has been made possible out of the proceeds of the sale of the second part of Telstra. And the Networking the Nation proposals long term goal is to make certain that people who live in the non metropolitan parts of Australia have the same opportunities as the people who live in the cities to participate to the full in the information technology revolution.

The only other thing I want to say ladies and gentlemen is to commend very warmly to you the work that Peter McGauran does as your local member. Peter has been the Member for Gippsland since 1983. He’s now making a very valuable contribution not only as a local member and as somebody who puts forward a regional non metropolitan point of view in the Joint Party Room. But also someone who’s doing an excellent job as the Minister responsible particularly at the present time for all of the activities associated with the celebration Australia’s centenary as a nation. And it is particularly appropriate that in the year that we’re celebrating the Centenary of the Australian Federation I should have the opportunity of visiting Peter’s electorate. And in doing so to commend very warmly to you the effort and the work that goes into his representation. He has drawn specifically to my attention a lot of the particular challenges of this electorate. It’s very diverse, it’s very beautiful it has great variations in some cases of income and it has a variety of different challenges. It’s one thing to represent a few square miles in metropolitan Sydney or Melbourne where the variation in the problems is not very great. It is entirely another thing to represent an electorate such as this, Gippsland, or to represent the electorate of Eden-Monaro which I visited yesterday in NSW which starts from the outskirts of Canberra and swings around towards the coast and takes in some of the snowy mountains area. And it takes a particular application and a particular skill on the part of a local member to do that. And I am delighted to commend him very warmly to you.

Thank you very much for coming. I again on behalf of your fellow Australians express my gratitude to all of the people who volunteer their services and all of those who work so very well and in such a committed fashion in the local community. I think Australia has a great community spirit. We have a tradition of volunteering which is far away ahead of that of other countries with which it is fair to make comparison and it’s one of the things of which we can be especially proud and I’m delighted to thank all of you who make that happen here in Lakes Entrance and generally in the East Gippsland area.

Thank you very much.


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